MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — Russian forces pounded key airfields in central Ukraine and launched a fresh assault on the besieged port city of Mariupol on Sunday, Russian and Ukrainian officials said, as Moscow pressed ahead with its invasion in defiance of new Western economic threats and fierce resistance from Ukraine’s outgunned defenders.
The newest attacks by Russian warplanes, missiles and artillery came as waves of refugees continued to pour across Ukraine’s western border. In Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, at least eight people, including two children, were killed in an artillery barrage as families were preparing to board buses to flee the area.
For the second consecutive day, Russian shelling ruptured a temporary cease-fire in Mariupol, blocking efforts to evacuate civilians in the Black Sea city where more than 200,000 residents remained trapped, according to a tally by relief agencies.
More than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine have fled to neighboring countries since the invasion began Feb. 24, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, said Sunday. He tweeted that the mass exodus is “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.” Grandi recently predicted that more than 4 million people could be displaced by the conflict in the weeks to come.
Throughout the weekend, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky renewed his pleas for international military help to “close the sky” to Russian bombers.
Zelensky warned of a coming Russian aerial assault on Odessa, the historic city of nearly 1 million people on the Black Sea coast, which has roughly the same population as San Jose, Calif. Ukrainian officials also reported steady advances by Russian armored columns in the country’s southeast.
An international nuclear watchdog accused Russian occupiers of interfering with the Ukrainian management at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southeastern Ukraine — a warning that is renewing fears about the possibility of an unintended nuclear accident amid the fog of war.
The facility, Europe’s largest nuclear plant, was seized by Russian troops on Friday after a projectile set part of the complex on fire. Although the strike didn’t release any radiation, ominous images of the attack worried Ukrainian officials and nuclear experts alike. Ukraine’s main security agency said Sunday that Russian forces launched rockets at the Kharkiv Institute of Physics and Technology, which houses a small nuclear reactor.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denied targeting civilians and sought instead to shift the blame to Ukraine. He said the invasion could still be halted, but “only if Kyiv ceases hostilities.”
The relentless attacks prompted new warnings from the Biden administration and several NATO allies of harsher measures against Russia, from war crimes investigations to possible restrictions against oil exports, which are a pillar of Russia’s economy.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the administration was in “very active discussions” with European partners on possibly blocking Russian oil sales, and Republican and Democratic lawmakers suggested that such a move would receive bipartisan support in Congress.
“What Vladimir Putin is doing is not only terrible violence to men, women and children, he’s doing terrible violence to the very principles [that] keep peace and security around the world,” Blinken said during a visit on Sunday to Moldova, Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor now worried that it could be Putin’s next target. “We can’t let either of those things go forward with impunity, because if we do, it opens a Pandora’s box that we will deeply, deeply regret.”
Russian attacks on two key aviation facilities raised new concerns about Ukraine’s ability to challenge Moscow’s control of the skies.
Airstrikes targeted a military air base about 150 miles southwest of Kyiv, as well as a commercial airport at Vinnytsia, about 70 miles southeast of the capital.
While the damage could not be independently assessed, the attacks could deprive Ukraine of usable airstrips as the country presses Western allies to send fighter planes to combat Moscow’s invasion.
Zelensky confirmed in a video message that the strike on Vinnystia had “completely destroyed the airport.”
In the same message, Zelensky, who has repeatedly urged NATO to help him defend his country against Russian warplanes, again called for assistance in fighting an air war.
“We repeat every day: Close the sky over Ukraine. Close it for all Russian rockets. For all Russian military aviation. For all these terrorists. Make a humanitarian airspace,” Zelensky said. “We are people, and this is your humanitarian obligation to protect us.”
Failing that, supply “airplanes so that we can protect ourselves,” he added.
A spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry confirmed that the military had struck the air base with long-range, high precision weapons — apparently including cruise missiles. Among the targets was a Russian-made air defense system owned by Ukraine, the spokesman said.
“Almost all combat-capable aviation of the regime in Kyiv has been destroyed,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in a statement following the attacks.
In Washington, a senior Defense Department official disputed the Russian account, saying U.S. officials “continue to observe that the airspace over Ukraine is contested.”
“Ukrainian air and missile defenses remain effective and in use,” said the official who, following standard practice, spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide military assessments. “The Ukrainian military continues to fly aircraft and to employ air defense assets.”
The Pentagon has noted “limited changes on the ground” over the past day, the official said. Russian forces appeared to be continuing their efforts to advance and isolate major cities like Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv but are “being met with strong Ukrainian resistance,” he said.
Commenting on widely circulated videos purporting to show Ukrainian forces shooting down Russian warplanes and helicopters, he said: “We cannot independently verify those incidents, but neither are we in a position to refute them.”
The White House and many congressional leaders have ruled out the possibility of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which could lead to clashes between NATO and Russian warplanes and, potentially, to a dramatic expansion of the war.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), in an interview on ABC, said a decision to implement a no-fly zone would imply a “willingness to shoot down the aircrafts of the Russian federation, which is basically the beginning of World War III.”
But Blinken said Sunday that the United States is exploring how it might supply Ukraine with fighter jets from NATO nations. “I can’t speak to the timeline but I can just tell you that we’re looking at it very, very actively,” Blinken said.
Russia, meanwhile, warned that foreign countries hosting Ukrainian combat aircraft could be viewed by Moscow as parties to the conflict.
“We know for a fact about Ukrainian combat planes which earlier flew to Romania and other neighboring countries,” Konashenkov said Sunday. “We would like to point out that the use of the network of airfields of those countries for the stationing of Ukrainian combat aviation for the further use against the Russian Armed Forces could be viewed as the involvement of those countries in the armed conflict,” he said.
Russian shelling of civilian neighborhoods caused additional casualties, although precise figures were difficult to obtain. For the second time in 24 hours, Russia was accused of violating cease-fire agreements intended to evacuate civilians from besieged cities. In Mariupol, the city council said evacuations were not possible because “Russians began to regroup their forces and to shell the city heavily.”
Some of the most gruesome images of the day came after civilians were killed Sunday in evacuation attempts near a battered bridge in Irpin, a town outside Kyiv, visuals verified by The Washington Post indicate. A video published Sunday showed a man in Irpin wearing a yellow armband, usually worn by Ukrainian forces, and carrying a gun over his shoulder as he stands across from a church and sidewalk crowded with people carrying suitcases. He takes a few steps toward an intersection before an explosion rips through the middle of the street.
The area is filled with smoke. Someone runs out of the building and drags the man with the yellow armband out of the street. Soldiers sprint across the intersection to people collapsed on the ground, and someone shouts, “Medic!”
Associated Press photos of the aftermath show civilians — including children — killed in the attack. Lynsey Addario, a photographer working for the New York Times who witnessed the attack, wrote on Twitter that “at least three members of a family of four were killed in front of me.”
Blinken cited the ongoing shelling in suggesting that invading Russian forces may have committed war crimes. It was the Biden administration’s sharpest comments on the issue to date.
“We’ve seen very credible reports of delivered attacks on civilians which would constitute a war crime,” he said. “We’ve seen very credible reports about the use of certain weapons,” Blinken said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”
Yet, in calls with French and Turkish leaders Sunday, Putin vowed to press on with the invasion unless Ukraine stopped fighting.
It was time for Ukraine to “show a more constructive approach that fully takes into account the emerging realities,” he said, according to the Kremlin, in an apparent reference to Ukraine’s military and territorial losses since Russia’s invasion.
Speaking by phone with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Putin said the war was “going according to plan” and on time. He denied that Russia was responsible for the civilian casualty toll, according to a Russian readout of the call.
But Russia’s economic and diplomatic isolation has deepened in the days since the start of the invasion. On Sunday, American Express and Netflix became the latest international corporations to suspend operations inside Russia. Citing the “unjustified attack on the people of Ukraine,” American Express said its credit cards will no longer work at merchants or ATMs in Russia, and cards issued locally in Russia will no longer operate outside the country. Visa and Mastercard implemented similar measures over the weekend.
Demonstrators again took to the streets to denounce the Russian invasion in cities around the world, including in Russia itself. Nearly 4,500 protesters were arrested Sunday at antiwar demonstrations in more than 50 Russian cities, according to OVD-Info, an independent human rights organization that Russian authorities have declared a foreign agent.
Crowds chanted “No to war!” while streaming through Moscow and St. Petersburg in a pair of videos posted to Twitter. In another, a demonstrator sang Ukraine’s anthem while being hauled away by police.
Footage shared on social media showed police taking demonstrators into custody, at times using force. Several officers wearing body armor surrounded a person who was flailing on the ground. One officer struck the person with a baton and kicked the person before another shooed away the camera filming the encounter.
In Washington, about 400 people draped in blue-and-yellow flags and carrying protest signs demonstrated in front of the White House on Sunday afternoon as speakers, including U.S. diplomats and lawmakers, called for support for Ukraine.
“We need more armed forces, not just from the U.S. but from other countries, because they’re going to take over other nations,” said Beatriz Nehrebeckyj, 74, of Ellicott City, Md., whose parents left Ukraine at the onset of World War II. She was there with her daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. “Putin won’t stop at us,” she said, her voice shaking. “He won’t, he won’t.”
Andriy Kulynin, 55, wore a handlebar mustache and traditional Ukrainian attire including an embroidered shirt and a wooden copy of the mace that is a symbol of the Ukrainian president. The owner of an HVAC company in Philadelphia, he speaks daily to his cousins in Ukraine. “They [are] scared, but they stay,” he said. “Nobody going to give up, even old people, even old ladies. They will stay, they will fight for their country.”
Fahim reported from Istanbul; Warrick and Lamothe from Washington; and Ryan from Tallinn, Estonia. Jennifer Hassan in London, Danielle Paquette in Dakar, Senegal, and Sarah Cahlan, Paulina Firozi, Rachel Pannett, Hannah Knowles, Tara Bahrampour, Kim Bellware, Brittany Shammas, Steven Zeitchik and Yasmeen Abutaleb in Washington contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this report misspelled the last name of a protester. His name is Andriy Kulynin, not Kulyinin.
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