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Biden vows $1.3 billion in Ukraine aid as Mariupol standoff worsens

A member of pro-Russian forces stands in front of the destroyed administration building of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in Mariupol on April 21. (Chingis Kondarov/Reuters)

President Biden announced $1.3 billion in new military and economic assistance to Ukraine on Thursday as a beleaguered group of Ukrainian fighters remained holed up in a steel plant in the key southern port city of Mariupol, waging a final, desperate standoff with Russian forces who have trapped them inside.

Washington and Moscow sought to hail progress in the nearly two-month-old war, issuing dueling pronouncements and pouring new resources into a conflict that could drag on for months, if not years, in the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough.

Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Mariupol, ominously insisting he had canceled plans to storm the besieged steel plant and declaring his forces would instead blockade it so “that even a fly could not get through.” Biden, meanwhile, said the war was entering a new stage, as Russia focuses its fire on Ukraine’s south and east, and promised new U.S. support for Ukraine.

“We’re in a critical window now of time where — they’re going to set the stage for the next phase of this war,” Biden said from the White House Roosevelt Room.

On April 21, President Biden announced a new round of American support for Ukraine to fight against Russia. (Video: The Washington Post)

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The latest package of U.S. military assistance, the eighth such installment, includes 72 howitzers, 144,000 rounds of ammunition, dozens of tactical vehicles and more than 120 Phoenix Ghost tactical drones. An additional $800 million is going toward military assistance, Biden said, while an additional $500 million is going toward direct economic assistance to the Ukrainian government.

Biden, who discussed the package with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal during his visit to the White House on Thursday, said the United States would continue to support “the people of Ukraine and to hold Putin accountable for his brutal and bloody war.” He also announced the United States would no longer allow Russian-affiliated ships to enter American ports, in the latest punishing economic measure directed at the Kremlin.

“That means no ship, no ship that sails under the Russian flag or that is owned or operated by Russian interests will be allowed to dock in the United States port or access our shores,” Biden said.

Biden’s determination was matched by Putin’s enthusiasm. The Russian president congratulated his troops for their efforts in Mariupol during a rare televised meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu — though the presence of Ukrainian forces inside the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant seemed to indicate his assertion was premature.

“The work of the armed forces to liberate Mariupol has been a success. Congratulations,” Putin said.

Four buses from Mariupol arrived in Zaporizhzhia after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared victory in the Ukrainian port city on April 21. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post, Photo: Heidi Levine/The Washington Post)

The move to claim victory — even as Shoigu estimated that “around 2,000” Ukrainian troops remain in the steel plant — appears to sidestep the difficulty and danger of seizing the complex, which occupies four square miles and has a sprawling subterranean network. Ukrainians inside the plant have for days refused Russia’s demand to surrender.

Rejecting Putin’s claim, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that while Russia had captured “most of Mariupol long ago,” Ukrainian troops remained in “a part of the city” where the situation “has practically not changed since yesterday.” For weeks, Russian forces have bombarded Mariupol, which had a prewar population of about 440,000, leaving it largely destroyed. Shoigu estimated that Russia will now need only a few days to wrap up military action at the plant. Mariupol has important practical and symbolic significance for Moscow, with any capture allowing for the completion of a land bridge to the annexed Crimean Peninsula from the Russian mainland.

“This situation is difficult,” Zelensky said during a news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who arrived in Ukraine’s capital Thursday.

Zelensky estimated that “a few thousand people” remained at the steel plant site and that about 120,000 civilians were still trapped in the city. He accused Russia on Thursday of “blocking” the process of establishing humanitarian corridors for civilians to safely escape, though he noted that some residents had found their own ways to leave. He also said Moscow had rebuffed Kyiv’s offer to send senior officials to Mariupol for negotiations to end the standoff.

On April 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared the siege of Mariupol a “success.” Here’s a look back at key moments in the battle for Ukraine’s strategic port city. (Video: Leila Barghouty/The Washington Post)

What is happening in Mariupol, the Ukrainian city under Russian siege?

Russia, for its part, said that it had created a path to safety for civilians at the steel plant but that no one had used the route.

The brutality surrounding Mariupol came into sharper focus Thursday with the publication of new satellite images showing a mass burial site in the Russian-occupied village of Manhush, about 12 miles west of Mariupol, containing more than 200 new plots alongside an existing village cemetery.

The images, provided to The Washington Post by Maxar Technologies, show several rows of graves in four distinct sections, each measuring nearly 280 feet. Maxar’s review of the images indicates that the new graves appeared between March 23 and 26 and that additional plots have been added in the weeks since.

Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, wrote on his Facebook page that the photos reflect “the whole scope of the tragedy of Mariupol, the inhumanity of the Russians” and amount to “direct evidence of war crimes and attempts to cover them up.”

A group of people fleeing Mariupol arrived Thursday in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia in a convoy of buses and a dozen private cars. Volunteers stood ready for them with hot food as the vehicles’ occupants looked exhausted, some of them too tired to speak.

They had escaped “hell,” one person told a Post reporter. Others said that bodies had lain in the streets or been buried in shallow graves on the sidewalk.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said Thursday that, even amid catastrophic losses in Mariupol, Russian claims of victory there were premature. “They cannot physically take Azovstal. … They have experienced huge losses there,” he said. “Our defenders are continuing to hold on to it.”

Many in Mariupol have traditionally harbored sympathies with nearby Russia, maintaining close cultural and linguistic ties. But the city’s mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said Russian forces were “ruining” the city and “destroying our state.”

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Western officials suspect that Putin’s declaration of victory may be part of efforts to accelerate Russia’s campaign ahead of its annual Victory Day celebrations on May 9. Officials had said Putin was determined to take Mariupol and make headway in Donbas, the region of eastern Ukraine bordering Russia, by that date.

The Russian leader’s apparent decision to turn to a blockade of the Ukrainians at the plant would allow the Kremlin to declare a quick victory in Mariupol and free up resources for campaigns it is launching elsewhere, even though the city has not completely fallen.

Russian forces, for example, seized several small towns and advanced on Rubizhne and Popasna, in eastern Ukraine, in the past 24 hours, according to an analysis by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

“Russian forces continued major assaults with heavy air and artillery support but are continuing to build the logistics and command-and-control capabilities necessary for a larger offensive,” said the group.

Fighting intensified in Ukraine’s east after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Moscow would seek the “complete liberation” of Donetsk and Luhansk as part of the “next phase” of its war in Ukraine. Russia has backed separatists in the two regions for years. The governor of Ukraine’s Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said Russian forces now control 80 percent of the area, part of embattled Donbas.

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Elsewhere, Russian forces were advancing toward the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to Britain’s Defense Ministry, which said the city was facing “persistent” rocket attacks. In Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, the governor said Thursday that the area was being bombarded by Russian rockets and shelling.

Deprived of water, gas and electricity, residents of Kharkiv, Ukraine, collected rainwater and cooked using wooden debris from destroyed buildings on April 20. (Video: AP)

The fighting has had a devastating impact on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, a reason Biden cited for including $500 million in direct economic assistance for Kyiv in the aid package announced Thursday.

“This is money the government can … use to stabilize their economy, to support communities that have been devastated by the Russian onslaught and pay the brave workers that continue to provide essential services to the people of Ukraine,” Biden said.

More than 5 million Ukrainians, upward of 10 percent of the country’s population, have fled to Poland, Romania and other neighboring countries. The mass exodus and strain on those nations has fueled calls for the Biden administration to admit more into the United States.

On Thursday, the Biden administration unveiled plans to expedite the arrival of Ukrainian refugees, creating a new system that will allow ordinary citizens and organizations such as churches to sponsor them.

Biden pledged a month ago to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainians, but the administration had not previously offered clear guidance on the process. About 15,000 Ukrainians have arrived without permission, mostly at the U.S.-Mexico border, over the past three months, senior administration officials said in a conference call with reporters Thursday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the new program.

Suliman reported from London. Pietsch reported from Seoul. David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine; Louisa Loveluck in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine; and Karoun Demirjian, Paulina Firozi, Felicia Sonmez, Maria Sacchetti and Paulina Villegas in Washington contributed to this report.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” of troops in an address to the nation on Sept. 21, framing the move as an attempt to defend Russian sovereignty against a West that seeks to use Ukraine as a tool to “divide and destroy Russia.” Follow our live updates here.

The fight: A successful Ukrainian counteroffensive has forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in recent days, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Annexation referendums: Staged referendums, which would be illegal under international law, are set to take place from Sept. 23 to 27 in the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine, according to Russian news agencies. Another staged referendum will be held by the Moscow-appointed administration in Kherson starting Friday.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can help support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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