MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — At least 35 people were killed and 134 injured on Sunday when a barrage of Russian missiles slammed into a military facility in western Ukraine about 15 miles from the border with Poland, Ukrainian officials said. It was the closest attack thus far to NATO’s border and an ominous expansion of Russia’s targeting.
The Russian Ministry of Defense charged that the facility was a “training center for foreign mercenaries” and a storage base for weapons and equipment being sent to Ukraine by “foreign countries.” A day earlier, the Kremlin warned that it viewed Western weapons shipments “legitimate targets.”
In another sign of the expanding conflict, the White House said national security adviser Jake Sullivan would meet in Rome on Monday with a top Chinese official to warn of what Sullivan said would “absolutely be consequences” for any Chinese efforts to assist Russia in evading sanctions.
Since the invasion began, Russia has turned to China, the only major world power that hasn’t turned its back on Moscow, for military equipment and aid, according to U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. The officials did not comment on whether, or how, China had responded to the Russian request. A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, said in an email he was not aware of any such request for assistance.
Conditions for residents of cities facing constant attacks from Russian forces have steadily eroded. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that nearly 125,000 people have been evacuated from the conflict zones via humanitarian corridors through which the Russians have sporadically allowed them to exit.
But efforts to evacuate citizens and deliver crucial supplies to Mariupol, the city on the southeastern coast where Russian forces have cut off sources of water and electricity, continue to be thwarted by Russian bombardment. In a video address, Zelensky said humanitarian aid was about 50 miles away from the city, but a convoy had been unable to move farther. The Mariupol city council has put the death toll there at 2,187.
As Russian forces continued positioning themselves to encircle Kyiv, an American journalist was killed by gunfire in Irpin, a town on the outskirts of the capital. Ukrainian officials also accused the Russians of abducting a second mayor, in the southeastern town of Dniprorudne, after last week’s apparent arrest of the mayor of the port city of Melitopol.
The barrage of attacks on Sunday in the city of Yavoriv hit a facility known as the International Peacekeeping and Security Center, where NATO troops in the recent past have trained Ukrainian forces. NATO officials said that no alliance forces were present at the time of the attack.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said U.S. troops on a training mission had left the facility “several weeks ago,” and there were “no Americans at all working” there. “This is the third now military facility or airfield that the Russians have struck in western Ukraine in just the last couple of days,” Kirby said Sunday. “So clearly, at least from an airstrike perspective, they’re broadening their target sets.”
The Russian Defense Ministry’s account of the strike, differing with that provided by Ukrainian officials, said that “up to 180 foreign mercenaries” were killed, along with the destruction of a “large consignment of foreign weapons.” It said that such strikes would continue.
It was not immediately clear if the Russian claims about foreigners being at the facility were true. Western volunteers, including military veterans, have begun to arrive to fight alongside Ukrainian forces, and Russian officials have referred to them as mercenaries.
Western Ukraine has so far seen less fighting than eastern cities closer to the frontier with Russia, which have been pummeled by airstrikes, missiles and artillery, and choked off by sieges since Russian tanks rolled across the border more than two weeks ago. Waves of people seeking refuge from violence farther east have poured into the far western city of Lviv, which has become a hub for the internally displaced.
Sullivan said the bombing of the base did not come as a surprise to the American intelligence and national security officials. He noted that the United States had been warning “well before the invasion got underway” that Putin planned to attack all of Ukraine, “southern Ukraine, eastern Ukraine, and yes, western Ukraine.”
“What it shows is that Vladimir Putin is frustrated by the fact that his forces are not making the kind of progress that he thought that they would make against major cities, including Kyiv,” Sullivan said. “That he is expanding the number of targets, that he is lashing out and that he is trying to cause damage in every part of the country.”
He reiterated President Biden’s insistence that U.S. military forces would not be fighting Russian troops in Ukraine but that they would “defend every inch of NATO territory.”
The Lviv regional governor accused Russia of firing 30 missiles at the facility from the direction of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, warning that “the shelling is approaching the borders of NATO countries.” The Ukrainian air defense system shot down many of them and authorities had put out fires at the site, he added.
“Do you understand that war is closer than you imagine?” the Lviv mayor said in a Telegram message, addressing the United States and the European Union.
U.S. officials said they could not verify whether the attack was launched from aircraft or by sea. Hours after the strike, U.S. senators visiting refugees just over the Polish border echoed the Ukrainian government’s call for providing aircraft to Kyiv, which the Biden administration has said could lead to possible direct conflict between NATO and Russia. “I don’t understand why we’re not doing it,” said Sen. Robert Portman (R-Ohio), speaking from the refugee site.
Also a part of the delegation, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said, “I’d like to see the planes over there.” While she said the administration was determining the best form of air defense, “I still don’t rule out having planes at some point.”
Last week, the administration rejected a Polish plan to fly Soviet-era fighter jets in its arsenal to a U.S. air base in Germany for transfer to Ukraine. The United States and many of its NATO allies have said that they will increase shipments of antitank and antiaircraft weaponry.
Sullivan noted that allies, which have sent portable Stinger and other antiaircraft missile systems to Ukraine, are also reportedly considering the transfer of Russian-made S-300 systems, which Romania and other former Warsaw Pact, now NATO, countries have in their arsenals. Those systems can intercept aircraft at far higher altitudes.
It was unclear whether the Yavoriv facility was a main collection point for Western armaments and supplies flowing into Ukraine from Poland and other NATO countries that border Ukraine. U.S. and European officials have been closed-mouthed about the methods and routes they are taking, hoping to avoid Russian targeting.
Asked if he was confident the supply convoys were safe, Sullivan said on CNN, “What I’m confident of is that the United States, our NATO allies and partners, and the Ukrainians have set up a system where we believe we will continue to be able to flow substantial amounts of military assistance and weapons to the front lines to help the Ukrainians ensure that Ukraine is a strategic failure for Vladimir Putin.”
“Of course, these convoys are going through a war zone,” he said. “And so to describe them as safe wouldn’t be quite accurate.”
Among the training center areas that appeared to have been hit were trailers where U.S. troops lived while deployed and a U.S.-funded simulation center used to train Ukrainian soldiers, said a member of the Illinois National Guard who was deployed there from June 2020 to April 2021 and reviewed available imagery Sunday.
An active-duty U.S. soldier who worked at the center on and off from 2014 to 2017 said it has been used for several training programs and was a likely Russian target. “I’m surprised it took them this long,” the soldier said. “Expected it much sooner.” The National Guard member and the soldier spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
Western-led military training at the center went back even before the establishment of the rotational unit, with U.S. and other forces deploying there to train Ukrainian forces after Russian forces annexed the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. At the time, the move was seen as an initial response by the Obama administration short of sending weapons to the Ukrainians.
The facility is indeed the “main training center where U.S. and Canadian troops have been working with our Ukrainian partners” for the last six to seven years, retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, who served as commander of U.S. Army Europe during the Obama and Trump administrations, said via text.
“It was already an existing training center from Soviet days,” he said. “We and the Ukrainians put a lot of effort into turning it into a modern training area and center that the Ukrainians were now running themselves. The significance of this strike on Yavoriv to me is that it demonstrates that the Russians have the capability to reach that far,” he added, and “probably intended it as a warning to future logistics efforts.”
Elsewhere in Ukraine on Sunday, American journalist Brent Renaud was fatally shot while reporting outside Kyiv, according to the Kyiv region’s police chief and an adviser to the Ukrainian interior minister. Both shared photos of Renaud’s passport and a press badge issued by the New York Times. The Times said in a statement on Twitter that while Renaud had worked with the Times in the past, he was “not on assignment” for the paper in Ukraine.
A second journalist, Juan Arredondo, was with Renaud in Irpin, a Kyiv suburb, when the two came under fire after passing a military checkpoint, according to a video interview that Arredondo did with Italian news outlet Internazionale while being treated in a Kyiv hospital. Ukrainian officials blamed the killing on Russian troops.
Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, accused Russian forces of abducting a second mayor in Dniprorudne, in the southern part of the country. While at least two other Ukrainian officials cited the kidnapping of Mayor Yevhen Matveyev, the reports could not immediately be independently verified by The Washington Post. The alleged abduction came after the mayor of the southern port of Melitopol, was reportedly taken by Russian troops Friday, sparking protests there.
Herman Galushchenko, the Ukrainian energy minister, said in a message posted to Telegram that the power supply had been restored at the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine. Ukrainian officials said last week that the site was disconnected from the grid by Russian forces, raising concerns that a lack of power would jeopardize the cooling systems for the more than 20,000 spent fuel rods that remain onsite. The reactors revert to diesel backup generators in the event of a power outage.
International Atomic Energy Agency director Rafael Mariano Grossi hailed the “positive development” but said he remains concerned about nuclear security in Ukraine. The country’s regulator said Sunday that staffers at the Chernobyl facility “were no longer carrying out repair and maintenance of safety-related equipment, in part due to their physical and psychological fatigue after working nonstop for nearly three weeks,” the agency stated.
The IAEA had warned that the takeover of power plans in Ukraine, which gets at least half of its electricity from four nuclear facilities, had undermined the key pillars of nuclear safety. Petro Kotin, head of the Ukrainian state-owned atomic energy firm Energoatom, told local media last week that nuclear technicians at the Zaporizhzhia plant in southeast Ukraine were being forced to work at gunpoint.
Galushchenko called on the IAEA, the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to establish a 30-kilometer demilitarized zone around the nuclear power plants in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky and member of Kyiv’s delegation to peace talks with Russia, said in a video posted online Sunday that “Russia is starting to talk constructively. I think we will reach some concrete results, literally, in a few days.” His Russian counterpart, Leonid Slutsky, said in an interview with Russian state media Saturday that there had been “significant progress” in the talks.
Ukrainian officials said negotiations with Russia will continue Monday. Ukraine has demanded a cease fire and withdrawal of Russian troops. Russia has called for Ukraine’s demilitarization and pledge not to join NATO, as well as recognition of its annexation of Crimea and independence of Russian-occupied southeastern Ukraine.
Asked Sunday whether the United States would support any concessions made by Ukraine, Sullivan said that the negotiation is the one “that matters because, ultimately, it is Ukraine that will have to make its own sovereign decisions about the shape of any diplomacy going forward.”
Ellen Francis in London, Gerry Shih in New Delhi, Rachel Pannett in Sydney, and Amy B Wang, Cate Cadell, Annabelle Chapman, Hannah Knowles, Michael Birnbaum and Brittany Shammas in Washington contributed to this report.