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Ahead of Victory Day pageantry, destruction and visits by dignitaries

First lady Jill Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are the latest to visit Ukraine

Village leader Dina, 62, enters a damaged auditorium in Zahradivka, Ukraine, on Sunday. (John Moore/Getty Images)
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BERESTOVE, Ukraine — One day before a planned celebration in Russia that marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany, an airstrike on a school in eastern Ukraine serving as a bomb shelter left as many as 60 people buried under rubble and feared dead, Ukrainian officials said, in what may prove to be one of the deadliest attacks on civilians in the nearly three-month-old war.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces have intensified their push to consolidate more territory in Ukraine ahead of planned parades and pageantry for Victory Day on Monday, which may see Putin acknowledge for the first time publicly that his country is at war with Ukraine, paving the way for him to conscript more Russians into the fight.

“We know that there are no red lines for the regime in Moscow. So we’re preparing for everything,” warned Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, who questioned whether Putin’s fellow citizens understood the true costs of a war — to Russia and Ukraine — that he has tried to hide.

“It’s an aggressive war,” Markarova told CBS News’s “Face the Nation.” Russia “attacked a neighboring country, a peaceful country. And the question is, are they prepared to have more tens of thousands dying in Ukraine for no reason at all?”

First lady Jill Biden visited Ukraine on May 8 to call for an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)

Ukraine marks somber Victory Day

The attack on the school underscored what U.S. officials describe as the criminal nature of Russia’s military campaign, which they say targets civilians.

About 90 people were hiding in the school basement in the eastern village of Bilohorivka when it was attacked, according to Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the eastern Luhansk region.

Video from what remained of the school showed firefighters digging through the debris as small flames licked the rubble. Rescue workers battled for nearly four hours to extinguish a fire caused by a bomb from a Russian plane, Haidai said.

It was unclear how many people had been inside, and whether there were soldiers in the area at the time of the attack. Haidai said that 30 people were rescued Saturday, seven of them wounded, and that two bodies were also found in the rubble.

He said it was likely that all 60 people buried under the rubble are dead, although some civilians who were evacuated said about 37 people were sheltering there.

“There are only 12 of us left alive,” said one of four patients interviewed by The Washington Post as they left a hospital in the town of Bakhmut.

“We’d been inside that basement for a month,” said a 57-year-old woman who gave her name as Irena. Her neck and face were swollen. “We were eating dinner when it happened. We didn’t know what hit us.”

The violence stood in contrast to other scenes of solidarity and a tentative, hopeful return to normalcy elsewhere in Ukraine, as more dignitaries are venturing into the country to show support for the government.

In the west of the country, which has largely been spared from Russia’s onslaught, first lady Jill Biden made an unannounced visit, meeting with refugees at a processing center at the Vysne Nemecke crossing near the border with Slovakia.

“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” said Biden after entering Ukraine. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Biden also met with Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, who had not appeared in public since the Russian invasion on Feb. 24. She praised Biden “for a very courageous act” in coming to Ukraine.

“We understand what it takes for the U.S. first lady to come here during a war when the military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day, even today,” Zelenska said in Ukrainian through an interpreter.

Biden’s visit came amid a four-day swing through Eastern Europe for the first lady, her highest-profile diplomatic engagement since President Biden took office, and it was a rare visit by a president’s spouse to a war zone.

Jill Biden shapes the first lady role

In the capital Kyiv, U.S. diplomats made an initial foray toward reopening the U.S. Embassy, which had been evacuated before the Russian invasion.

U.S. Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien and a small group of diplomats and security personnel went to the U.S. mission on Sunday marking Victory in Europe Day, also called V-E Day, which commemorates the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany’s forces to the Allies in World War II.

The visit by the U.S. delegation didn’t signal an official reopening of the embassy, but the Biden administration plans to do so, the State Department said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in a phone call Sunday that Kvien and her colleagues had gone to the embassy “to conduct diplomatic engagement in advance of the planned resumption of Embassy Kyiv operations,” as Blinken had pledged to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, during their recent meeting in Ukraine, State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also made an unannounced visit to Ukraine to speak with Ukrainian officials and hoist the Canadian flag again over his country’s embassy in Kyiv, nearly three months after it suspended operations. He toured the devastated Kyiv suburb of Irpin, announced an additional $50 million in military aid, and said his country would lift trade tariffs on Ukrainian imports for a year.

Trudeau’s visit came ahead of a virtual conference with other leaders of the Group of Seven countries and Zelensky about ways to support Ukraine.

The G-7 — which includes the nations of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States — committed to phasing out the use of Russian oil and gas, or instituting outright bans.

The United States has already banned the import of Russian oil, gas and coal, but many countries, especially in Europe, have had a harder time winding down their reliance on Russian resources. European Union ambassadors have been meeting for days in Brussels to reach a consensus on a proposal to phase out Russian oil imports, but they were again stymied by pushback most notably from Hungary.

The G-7 statement didn’t provide a timeline for the bans.

“We will ensure that we do so in a timely and orderly fashion, and in ways that provide time for the world to secure alternative supplies,” the statement said.

The leaders announced additional sanctions on Russia, including new restrictions on three prominent state-controlled media organizations.

President Biden spoke with the group from his home in Delaware. The White House announced afterward additional sanctions, including visa restrictions on a wider group of Russian elites.

It also banned Americans from providing accounting, trust formation and management consulting to anyone in Russia. For now, however, providing legal services to Russians will not be banned, a senior administration official said during a briefing call.

“These services are key to Russian companies and elites building wealth, thereby generating revenue for Putin’s war machine, and to trying to hide that wealth and evade sanctions,” a White House statement said.

In his own commemoration of the victory over the Nazis 77 years earlier, Zelensky said publicly that “evil has returned” to Europe.

In an address posted to Telegram, Zelensky, standing between two blackened apartment buildings and wearing a T-shirt with the words “I’m Ukrainian” emblazoned on the front, said this year’s remembrance was different because for the first time since World War II, “monsters” have waged another deadly conflict.

The enemy, he said, wears a “different uniform” this time but has the same destructive purpose.

“This year, we say ‘Never again’ differently. We hear ‘Never again’ differently,” Zelensky said. The slogan, a rejection of any return to Nazism, now sounds “cruel” to Ukrainians under constant bombardment from Russia, he said.

“On Feb. 24, the word ‘never’ was erased.”

Harris reported from Washington, Pager from Uzhhorod, Ukraine, and Wootson from Wilmington, Del. Rachel Pannett in Sydney; Emily Rauhala and Quentin Ariès in Brussels; Jennifer Hassan, Victoria Bissett and Annabelle Timsit in London; Meryl Kornfield in Washington; Annabelle Chapman in Paris; and Amanda Coletta in Toronto contributed to this report.