US Approves $40bn For Ukraine As Biden Rallies Behind NATO Bids

In this file photo, US President Joe Biden (C) and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (R) arrive to visit service members from the 82nd Airborne Division, who are contributing alongside Polish Allies to deterrence on the Alliance’s Eastern Flank, in the city of Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border with Ukraine, on March 25, 2022. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

 

The US Congress on Thursday approved a gargantuan $40 billion aid package for Ukraine to help fight Russia’s invasion as President Joe Biden rallied behind the historic NATO membership bids of Sweden and Finland.

With unusually bipartisan support, the Senate voted 86-11 to pass the package — the equivalent of the 2020 GDP of Cameroon — after one senator briefly held up the vote, voicing alarm on the costs.

“Aid for Ukraine goes far beyond charity,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said.

“The future of American security and core strategic interests will be shaped by the outcome of this fight,” he said ahead of the vote.

The bundle includes $6 billion earmarked for Ukraine to boost its armored vehicle inventory and air defense system.

Nearly $9 billion is set aside to help Ukraine ensure “continuity of government” as well as humanitarian aid.

READ ALSO: Rwanda’s Salima Among Three Women To Referee At World Cup For First Time

Funds running out 

Congress already approved almost $14 billion for Ukraine in mid-March, weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned the world with his invasion, but most has been spent.

As Russian forces have given up on seizing Kyiv but have stepped up fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine, Biden has been calling for another round of financial support.

The House of Representatives had approved the $40 billion package last week but Rand Paul, like McConnell a Republican from Kentucky, prevented a quick vote in the Senate.

Paul, who opposes US interventionism, voiced concern about the cost and said that lawmakers should have been clearer on how to pay for the package and on monitoring where the money goes.

But Senator Lindsey Graham, a hawkish Republican who has previously called for the Russian president to be assassinated, said: “When it comes to Putin, either we pay now or we pay later.”

Shortly after the vote, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released another $100 million in previously approved funding for Ukraine.

The funding will include 18 new howitzers and some counter-artillery radar, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

The United States tried for weeks to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine and has responded with a sweeping pressure campaign, including sanctions targeting Putin.

In a rare resumption of dialogue, the top US and Russian generals, Mark Milley and Valery Gerasimov, spoke by telephone Thursday for the first time since the invasion, the Pentagon said.

 Rallying behind NATO 

Biden has cast the Ukraine war as part of a US-led great struggle of democracy against authoritarianism.

At the White House, he offered a red-carpet welcome to the leaders of Finland and Sweden days after they applied for NATO membership in the wake of Russia’s invasion.

“The bottom line is simple. Quite straightforward: Finland and Sweden make NATO stronger,” Biden said, offering the “full, total, complete backing of the United States of America.”

“Sweden and Finland have strong democratic institutions, strong militaries and strong and transparent economies, and a strong moral sense of what is right,” Biden said alongside Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the White House Rose Garden.

“They meet every NATO requirement, and then some,” Biden told assembled reporters without taking any questions.

Sweden and Finland have historically kept a distance from NATO as part of longstanding policies aimed at avoiding angering Russia but they shifted amid shock over the invasion of Ukraine, which has sought unsuccessfully to join the alliance.

Drawing an implicit contrast to his predecessor Donald Trump, Biden called NATO’s mutual defense promise — that an attack on one is an attack on all — a “sacred commitment.”

“We will never fail in our pledge to defend every single inch of NATO territory,” Biden said, promising as well to defend Finland and Sweden while their applications are pending.

As with military funding, support for the two Nordic nations’ membership is strong in the US Senate, which needs to ratify any move involving treaties.

But all 30 existing members need to consent to adding another nation and Turkey has voiced misgivings due to the presence in Sweden and Finland of Kurdish militants.

Addressing Turkey, Niinisto said Finland opposes “terrorism” and is “open to discussing all the concerns that you may have.”

AFP

US Senate To Vote On Abortion Rights Bill

The United States Congress. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP#

 

The US Senate will vote Wednesday on a national abortion rights bill — a process likely doomed to fail — after a leaked draft decision signalled the Supreme Court’s readiness to overturn the 1973 Roe v Wade decision.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, who has called the draft ruling an “abomination,” said he has teed up the vote on codifying the right to abortion in America, which the conservative-majority court appears poised to ban.

The prospects of success are virtually zero, given the blocking power of Republicans in an evenly divided 100-seat Senate where key legislation almost always faces a 60-vote threshold.

READ ALSO: US Hopes To Return Diplomats To Kyiv By End Of Month

But the vote will nonetheless put lawmakers on record regarding one of the country’s most divisive issues, and Democrats hope the debate will galvanize voters to go to the polls in the midterm elections exactly six months from Sunday.

“We will vote on Wednesday, and every American will see how every senator stands. They can’t duck it anymore,” Schumer said at a press conference Sunday in New York.

“Now they have to show which side they’re on.”

Republican-controlled states have taken steps to restrict abortion rights in recent months, given that overturning Roe v Wade would give states the ability to make their own laws on abortion.

Top congressional Democrat Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, reiterated her outrage about the court’s upcoming likely decision, telling CBS News on Sunday that “the court has slapped women in the face in terms of disrespect for their judgments about the size and timing of their families.”

With Democrats lacking the necessary majority to push through codification, the only other option would appear to be changing Senate rules to lower the number of votes required to pass such a bill.

But Republicans — and a few senators in President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party — oppose such a move.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand said “we will never give in” to Republican efforts to roll back abortion rights protections.

“We are half-citizens under this ruling,” she told CNN, referring to the draft opinion. “And if this is put into law, it changes the foundation of America.”

Several conservative states are already shifting.

The southern state of Mississippi will ban abortion except in cases of rape or incest, or danger to the life of the mother, Republican Governor Tate Reeves told NBC Sunday.

But looking forward, “we must prove that being pro-life is not just about anti-abortion,” Reeves said, by making sure expectant mothers and newborns have the resources they need.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said the Roe decision has sown division for decades because it “created a constitutional right that doesn’t exist in the written constitution.”

Now, he told Fox News, “finally elected officials have a say about life and the conditions of an abortion. I think that’s the way it should be.”

According to a poll released Friday by the Pew Research Center, about 61 percent of Americans believe abortion should remain legal in all or most circumstances.

But, as with so many other social issues, the gap between Democrats and Republicans is wide, and growing wider. Eight in 10 Democrats support abortion rights in all or most cases, more than double the 38 percent of Republicans who do, Pew said.

AFP

US To Give Ukraine Additional $150m Weapons Package

In this file photo, US President Joe Biden (C) and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (R) arrive to visit service members from the 82nd Airborne Division, who are contributing alongside Polish Allies to deterrence on the Alliance’s Eastern Flank, in the city of Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border with Ukraine, on March 25, 2022. Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

 

President Joe Biden announced Friday a new US weapons package worth $150 million for Ukraine’s fight to repel Russia’s invasion.

“I am announcing another package of security assistance that will provide additional artillery munitions, radars, and other equipment to Ukraine,” Biden said while warning that funding was close to running out and urging Congress to authorize more.

According to a senior US official, the package includes 25,000 155mm artillery rounds, counter-artillery radars used for detecting the source of enemy fire, electronic jamming equipment, and spare parts.

The artillery munitions appear to be meant for recently supplied US howitzers.

READ ALSO: US Hopes To Return Diplomats To Kyiv By End Of Month

Friday’s new batch brings the total value of US weaponry sent by the Biden administration to Ukraine — including heavy artillery, shoulder-held Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, and drones — to $3.8 billion since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

Friday’s package means the remaining $250 million available from previously authorized funding for Ukraine will have all but run out. Biden is pressing Congress to authorize a huge $33 billion Ukraine package, which would include $20 billion in military assistance, and last for five months.

Biden and the rest of the G7 leaders, plus Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, are meeting virtually on Sunday to discuss Western support for the country in its struggle against President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

“The United States has provided a historic amount of security assistance to Ukraine at rapid speed. We are sending the weapons and equipment that Congress has authorized directly to the front lines of freedom in Ukraine,” Biden said in a statement.

However, Biden said current funding was “nearly exhausted” and that “for Ukraine to succeed,” the United States and its allies must “keep the weapons and ammunition flowing to Ukraine, without interruption.”

“Congress should quickly provide the requested funding to strengthen Ukraine on the battlefield and at the negotiating table,” he said.

AFP

Biden Appoints First Black White House Press Secretary

White House Principal Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre speaks during a White House daily press briefing at the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on May 5, 2022, in Washington, DC. Alex Wong/Getty Images/AFP

 

US President Joe Biden on Thursday named Karine Jean-Pierre as the next White House press secretary, the first Black person to hold the high-profile post.

Jean-Pierre, who will also be the first openly LGBTQ+ person in the role, will replace Jen Psaki, under whom she served as deputy, from May 13.

Biden in a statement praised Jean-Pierre’s “experience, talent and integrity,” saying he was “proud” to announce her appointment.

The outgoing spokeswoman, bringing Jean-Pierre behind the podium for the traditional briefing of accredited journalists at the White House on Thursday, praised, in a voice sometimes choked with emotion, the qualities of her deputy, whom she hugged several times.

Jean-Pierre “will be the first Black woman, the first out LGBTQ+ person to serve in this role,” said Psaki, who said from the outset that she would step down during Biden’s term.

Jean-Pierre’s promotion is “amazing because representation matters and she is going to give a voice to so many and show so many what is truly possible when you work hard and dream big,” Psaki added, opting not to comment on media reports that she will be joining TV channel MSNBC after leaving the White House.

Also visibly moved, the future press secretary said: “This is a historic moment and it’s not lost on me. I understand how important it is for so many people.”

The 44-year-old Jean-Pierre, who has a daughter with her partner, a CNN journalist, has already taken to the famed podium in the White House’s James S. Brady Press Briefing Room as Psaki’s number two.

From May she’ll take center stage at the daily White House press conference, which is broadcast live and highly scrutinized.

Before her, only one other Black woman, Judy Smith, had been deputy White House press secretary, during George H.W. Bush’s presidency in 1991.

‘American Dream’ 

A long-time advisor to Biden, Jean-Pierre worked on both of former President Barack Obama’s campaigns in 2008 and 2012 and then on Biden’s campaign in 2020 before joining his team at the White House.

She also served under Biden during his tenure as Obama’s vice president.

Jean-Pierre was previously chief public affairs officer for liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org and worked as a political analyst with NBC and MSNBC, the White House statement said.

Raised in New York, French-speaking Jean-Pierre was born in Martinique to Haitian parents who emigrated to the United States, where her father drove a taxi and her mother was a home health worker.

It was in New York that she took her first steps into politics before also becoming a leading figure in the non-profit sphere, having graduated from the prestigious Columbia University.

Jean-Pierre has often said her family’s background, emblematic of the “American dream,” was a determining factor in her career.

But she has also written of “the pressure of growing up in an immigrant household to succeed” in a book published in 2019.

An advocate for combatting mental health stigma, the new White House spokeswoman has also shared her own stories of being sexually abused as a child as well as suffering from depression and at one point attempting suicide.

On Thursday, when asked about the message she wanted to deliver to American youth, she said: “If you are passionate about what you want to be, where you want to go, and you work very hard to that goal it will happen.

“You’ll be knocked down and you’ll have some tough times and it won’t be easy all the time but the rewards are pretty amazing, especially if you stay true to yourself.”

AFP

Biden Proposes $33 Bn Package For Ukraine, Targets Russian Oligarchs

US President Joe Biden delivers a speech about the Russian war in Ukraine at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland on March 26, 2022. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
 file photo of US President Joe Biden 
Brendan Smialowski / AFP

 

 

US President Joe Biden on Thursday proposed a huge $33 billion package for arming and supporting Ukraine, saying that “caving” into Russia is not an option for the West as the war stretches into the third month.

Speaking in the White House, Biden also outlined proposed new laws to allow using luxury assets stripped from Russian oligarchs under unprecedented sanctions to compensate Ukraine for the destruction wreaked by the invading Russians.

He acknowledged the dramatic costs of US backing for Ukraine but said there was no real choice in the struggle with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The cost of this fight is not cheap. But caving to aggression is going to be more costly if we allow it to happen,” he said.

Reflecting the scale of the US assistance to Ukraine, which is badly mauling the larger and more heavily armed Russian forces, Biden confirmed that the United States has already sent 10 tank-killing weapons for every Russian tank sent into the country.

However, he pushed back against increasingly heated claims by Russian officials and state media that Moscow is fighting the entire West, rather than only Ukraine.

“We’re not attacking Russia. We are helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression,” Biden said.

Calling rhetoric in Moscow about the possibility of nuclear warfare a sign of “desperation,” Biden said “no one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility that they would use that. It’s irresponsible.”

And after Russian state gas giant Gazprom announced it was cutting supplies to NATO and EU members Bulgaria and Poland, Biden said the United States was working to shore up European energy supplies.

“We will not let Russia intimidate or blackmail their way out of these sanctions. We will not allow them to use their oil and gas to avoid consequences for their aggression,” Biden said.

– Congressional vote required –
The bulk of the proposed $33 billion package will be “$20 billion in military and other security assistance. This means weapons and ammunition flowing to the Ukrainian people,” a senior US official told reporters.

A further $8.5 billion in economic aid will “help the government of Ukraine respond to the immediate crisis,” while some $3 billion is proposed to fund humanitarian assistance and address the global food supply price shock resulting from Russia’s onslaught against Ukraine, a major wheat exporter, the official said.

The proposed package also includes funding to address economic disruptions in the United States and elsewhere, ranging from the impact on food supplies to availability of critical components used in high-tech manufacturing.

Congress needs to approve the request and while both Republicans and Biden’s Democratic Party have signalled they are keen to keep backing Ukraine, a dispute over Biden’s request for an unrelated $22.5 billion Covid pandemic package threatens to complicate the approval process.

“I don’t care how they do it, I’m sending both up,” Biden said, but “we must also not let our guard down in our fight against Covid-19.”

– Going after oligarchs –
In parallel with Western military assistance — which began cautiously with mostly defensive infantry weapons, but now includes heavy artillery and armed drones — Washington is leading a sanctions onslaught designed to isolate Russia and pressure Putin.

Biden announced a proposal to ratchet up pressure on Putin’s billionaire inner circle, with enhanced seizure and forfeiture procedures allowing oligarchs’ assets to be “sold off” to “remedy the harm Russia caused and to help build Ukraine.”

To date, European Union allies have frozen more than $30 billion in Russian assets, including almost $7 billion in luxury goods belonging to oligarchs, including yachts, art, real estate and helicopters, the White House said.

The United States has “sanctioned and blocked vessels and aircraft worth over $1 billion, as well as frozen hundreds of millions of dollars of assets belonging to Russian elites in US accounts,” said the statement. One of the latest seizures was of a $90 million superyacht belonging to Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg.

The legislative package being proposed by Biden would also tighten the legal squeeze on oligarchs as they try to hide their funds.

One proposal is to allow seizing of property used to evade sanctions. Another is to expand the arsenal used by US prosecutors, doubling the amount of time they are allowed to pursue money laundering investigations from five to 10 years, and applying anti-racketeering laws used to tackle organized crime to sanctions evasion.

Biden Picks Senior Diplomat As Ukraine Ambassador

In this file photo, US Deputy Assistant Secretary Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Bridget Brink (C) and Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili (not seen) hold a bilateral meeting at Presidental Palace in Tbilisi, Georgia on June 21, 2016. Georgian Presidency / Anadolu Agency
Georgian Presidency / ANADOLU AGENCY / Anadolu Agency via AFP

 

President Joe Biden has nominated career foreign service officer Bridget Brink to be the next US ambassador to Ukraine, the White House announced Monday.

In Brink, Biden has chosen a seasoned diplomat who speaks Russian to be his chief envoy in a nation suffering a full-scale invasion by Moscow.

Brink, currently the US ambassador to Slovakia, would fill a position that has been officially empty since 2019.

She has “spent her twenty-five-year career in the Foreign Service focused on advancing US policy in Europe and Eurasia,” the White House said in a statement announcing Biden’s pick.

RELATED: Russia Slaps Travel Ban On Kamala Harris, Zuckerberg

Brink also has served as deputy chief of mission in US embassies in Uzbekistan and Georgia and was stationed early in her career in Belgrade, Serbia, and in Cyprus.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv on Sunday, where he met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and told him Biden was nominating Brink to the post.

He also told Zelensky that the United States intends to return its diplomats to Kyiv this week, months after they evacuated and set up operations in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, and in neighboring Poland.

Though several European countries have already reopened their embassies in Kyiv, the return will be gradual for American diplomats, according to a State Department official.

“Since the start of hostilities, we’ve had a team across the border in Poland who’s been handling this work for us,” the official told reporters waiting for Blinken on the Polish side of the border.

Biden’s nomination of Brink requires confirmation by the US Senate. The chamber is evenly split 50-50, but given the urgency of conditions in Ukraine, it is expected Brink will be confirmed to the post.

AFP

Biden Announces New $800m Military Package For Ukraine

US President Joe Biden (C) talks to service members from the 82nd Airborne Division, who are contributing alongside Polish Allies to deterrence on the Alliance’s Eastern Flank, in the city of Rzeszow in southeastern Poland, around 100 kilometres (62 miles) from the border with Ukraine, on March 25, 2022.  Brendan SMIALOWSKI / AFP

 

US President Joe Biden announced Thursday a new package of $800 million in military aid for Ukraine, saying it would help Kyiv in the fight against Russian forces in the Donbas region.

The Pentagon said the newest round of US support will include 72 155mm howitzers, 72 armored vehicles to tow them, 144,000 rounds of ammunition, and more than 120 “Phoenix Ghost” tactical drones recently developed by the US Air Force specifically to address Ukraine’s needs.

Biden said the new package was tailored to help Ukraine’s forces meet the emerging Russian offensive in the country’s east, which he said would be a different kind of fight than that in the north around Kyiv, where Ukrainian forces successfully beat Russian forces back in the first six weeks of the war.

“We’re in a critical window now… where they’re going to set the stage for the next phase of this war. And the United States and our allies and partners are moving as fast as possible to continue to provide Ukraine… the weapons their forces need to defend their nation,” the president said.

READ ALSO: Russia Slaps Travel Ban On Kamala Harris, Zuckerberg

Biden also announced that Russia-affiliated ships would be banned from US ports, and that the US Treasury was putting up a fresh $500 million for Ukraine’s government so it can pay salaries and pensions and provide services.

He said unity between the US and allies in support of Ukraine is sending “an unmistakable message” to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“He will never succeed in dominating and occupying all of Ukraine. That will not happen,” Biden said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has pushed strongly for more and heavier weaponry, said in a tweet that he was grateful for Biden’s announcement.

“This help is needed today more than ever! It saves the lives of our defenders of democracy and freedom and brings us closer to restoring peace” in Ukraine, he said.

 Long-range Artillery 

At the Pentagon, Spokesman John Kirby said that Ukrainian troops were already being trained on the M777 howitzers and that the some of the new equipment would be on its way for delivery to the embattled country by this weekend.

Combined with 18 howitzers announced for Ukraine last week, the new artillery would be enough to equip five battalions, Kirby said, noting that both sides are preparing for a battle driven by long-range artillery fire.

In their training on the howitzers, Ukrainian forces “are very happy with the performance of the system and they’re learning it quickly,” said Kirby.

The new drones, he indicated, will act as both surveillance and “loitering” attack drones, which can hover over a target and either drop munitions or themselves crash into a target and explode at the most opportune moment.

“We are going to continue to utilize all available tools to support Ukraine’s armed forces in the face of Russian aggression,” he said.

– $4 billion in defense assistance –
The new package follows $800 million in military assistance announced by the White House last week, taking to $4 billion the amount the US has put up in arms and supplies for Ukraine’s forces since the start of the Biden administration in January 2021.

Numerous allies in Europe have also supplied Ukraine with weapons and military supplies.

Biden pledged that US military aid for Kyiv will not dry up, and said he was preparing to ask Congress for more funds “to keep weapons and ammunition flowing without interruption.”

He called on allies to continue their support.

“We have the capacity to do this for a long time. The question is, are we going to maintain the support of the international community to keep the pressure on Putin” and keep enforcing tough sanctions on Russia, he said.

“The most important thing is maintain unity,” he said.

AFP

Biden Gives ‘Crime Scene’ Ukraine $800m To Hold Off Russia

A Ukraine soldier inspects the rubble of a destroyed apartment building in Kyiv on March 15, 2022, after strikes on residential areas killed at least two people, Ukraine emergency services said as Russian troops intensified their attacks on the Ukrainian capital.  FADEL SENNA / AFP

 

US President Joe Biden announced an $800 million military aid package for Ukraine on Wednesday as international prosecutors declared the war-torn Western ally a “crime scene” amid fears of a massive revamped Russian assault.

The announcement came with the Russian military threatening to strike Ukraine’s command centers in the capital Kyiv if Ukrainian troops continue to attack Russian territory.

“We are seeing Ukrainian troops’ attempts to carry out sabotage and strike Russian territory. If such cases continue, the Russian armed forces will strike decision-making centers, including in Kyiv,” the Russian defense ministry said in a statement.

The warning sparked alarm in Ukraine’s largest city, as Moscow was believed to be refocusing its war aims — withdrawing from Kyiv after failing to capture it and shifting attention to the south and east.

Biden has accused President Vladimir Putin of genocide — a claim dismissed as “unacceptable” by the Kremlin — as Russia comes under increasing scrutiny over atrocities discovered in towns since abandoned by its forces.

READ ALSO: Ukraine Braces For ‘Important Battles’ As Pope Urges Easter Ceasefire

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau backed Biden but France and Germany declined to follow suit, drawing the ire of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who denounced French leader Emmanuel Macron’s stance as “very painful for us.”

The Pentagon says it has been looking to provide Ukraine with weapons that would “give them a little more range and distance,” with Kyiv girding for a huge escalation of violence in the eastern Donbas region.

The new US shipment will include armored personnel carriers, helicopters, and some of the heavier equipment Washington had previously refused to send to Ukraine for fear of escalating the conflict with nuclear-armed Russia.

Before announcing the aid, Biden spoke to Zelensky for about an hour, the White House said, pledging “to provide Ukraine with the capabilities to defend itself.”

The Hague-based International Criminal Court, which deals with rights abuses, has investigators in Ukraine and told reporters the country had become a “crime scene.”

 ‘Permeated With Pain’ 

An Ukranian soldier patrols in an armoured vehicle a street in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 2, 2022, where town's mayor said 280 people had been buried in a mass grave and that the town is littered with corpses. RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP
An Ukranian soldier patrols in an armoured vehicle a street in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, on April 2, 2022, where town’s mayor said 280 people had been buried in a mass grave and that the town is littered with corpses. RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP

 

Officials in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha — now synonymous with scores of atrocities — say more than 400 people were found dead after Moscow’s forces withdrew, with 25 reported rapes.

“We’re here because we have reasonable grounds to believe that crimes within the jurisdiction of the court are being committed,” the ICC’s chief prosecutor Karim Khan said on a visit to the town.

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda made his own trip to the town of Borodyanka, a half-hour drive further northwest, calling the area “permeated with pain and suffering.”

Meanwhile, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said Russia had engaged in “clear patterns of international humanitarian law violations.”

Before the latest military aid package, the United States had supplied or promised Ukraine 1,400 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 5,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles, several thousand rifles with ammunition, and a range of other equipment.

Reportedly using Ukraine’s own Neptune missiles, Kyiv claimed Wednesday to have damaged the Russian Black Sea fleet flagship “Moskva” off the coast of the strategic port of Odessa.

But even with their own weaponry and US support, Ukrainian forces have struggled to hold the key southern port of Mariupol, where Zelensky has estimated “tens of thousands” of civilians have died.

Russia’s defense ministry said Wednesday more than 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered in Mariupol, as airstrikes targeted the city’s huge Azovstal iron and steelworks.

The plant’s maze-like complex has been a focus of resistance in Mariupol, with fighters using a tunnel system below the vast industrial site to slow Russian forces down.

But the city is part of an apparent Russian push to create an unbroken corridor from occupied Crimea to Donbas, where Russian-backed separatists control the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

Leonid Pasechnik, a separatist leader in eastern Ukraine, said up to 90 percent of territory of the self-proclaimed Lugansk People’s Republic was now under rebel control.

He told reporters separatist troops would “liberate” the rest of the territory and then decide whether to support Russian troops in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic.

Britain said Wednesday it would sanction 178 Russian separatists and the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, as well as six more oligarchs and their families.

Russia announced its own sanctions Wednesday, introducing retaliatory measures against 398 members of the US Congress and vowing more sanctions would follow.

Counting The Dead 

This general view shows destroyed Russian armored vehicles in the city of Bucha, west of Kyiv, on March 4, 2022. (Photo by ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

 

In a desperate attempt to flee what Ukrainian authorities warn will be a bloody new clash in the east, more than 40,000 people have left the country in the past 24 hours, the United Nations said, bringing those displaced abroad to 4.6 million since the conflict began.

But Kyiv halted humanitarian corridors in several parts of the country Wednesday, deeming them “too dangerous” for evacuations.

Others have chosen to stay, like Maria, a resident of the most easterly city still held by Ukrainian forces, Severodonetsk.

“There’s no electricity, no water,” said the young woman, who did not want to flee her home even though the bombing from Russian forces has made the city a deserted shell of its former self.

“But I prefer to stay here, at home. If we leave, where will we go?”

Underscoring the risk to civilians, Ukrainian prosecutors on Wednesday accused Russian troops of shooting six men and one woman the day before in a home in the occupied southern village of Pravdyne.

Another four civilians were killed in Russian strikes on second city Kharkiv on Wednesday, local authorities said.

US private satellite firm Maxar Technologies published images Wednesday it said showed Russian ground forces moving towards the border with Ukraine.

But even as the military focus shifted eastward, the grim work of accounting for the civilian dead continued in areas recently abandoned by Russia’s army.

North of Bucha in Gostomel, locals exhumed the body of Mayor Yuriy Prylypko, whom authorities said was shot while “handing out bread to the hungry and medicine to the sick.”

Up to 400 people are unaccounted for in the town, said regional prosecutor Andiy Tkach. AFP witnessed dozens of body bags filling a refrigerated lorry trailer, as two others awaited more corpses.

“Our citizens are murdered and we must bury every person in the right way,” said Igor Karpishen, loading the truck.

“I don’t have any words to express these feelings.”

The United Nations has asked for a ceasefire as it awaits a Russian response to concrete proposals for evacuating civilians and delivering aid.

“That was our appeal for humanitarian reasons but it doesn’t seem possible,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a news conference.

AFP

Biden Accuses Putin’s Forces Of ‘Genocide’ In Ukraine

A photo combination of US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladmir Putin
A photo combination of US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin

 

US President Joe Biden has for the first time accused Vladimir Putin’s forces of committing genocide in Ukraine, where Russia is intensifying its campaign to take the strategic port city of Mariupol. 

Biden’s accusation comes as Moscow — already accused by the West of widespread atrocities against civilians — is feared to be readying a massive onslaught across Ukraine’s east that Washington warned might involve chemical weapons.

“Yes, I called it genocide,” Biden told reporters on Tuesday, hours after employing the term during a speech in Iowa — its first use by a member of his administration.

“We’ll let the lawyers decide internationally whether or not it qualifies, but it sure seems that way to me,” Biden said. “It’s become clearer and clearer that Putin is just trying to wipe out the idea of even being able to be a Ukrainian.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky — who has repeatedly accused Moscow of attempted “genocide” — swiftly responded by tweeting at Biden: “True words of a true leader.”

“Calling things by their names is essential to stand up to evil,” Zelensky wrote — renewing his appeal for more heavy weapons to “prevent further Russian atrocities”.

READ ALSO: Ukraine Braces For ‘Important Battles’ As Pope Urges Easter Ceasefire

Biden had previously described Putin as a “war criminal” as the discovery of hundreds of civilians reportedly killed in Bucha, outside Kyiv, sparked global revulsion.

But he had stopped short of using the term “genocide,” in line with longstanding US protocol, because of its strict legal definition and the heavy implication the accusation carries.

Tunnel Warriors 

While the toll on towns occupied during the month-long offensive to take Kyiv like Bucha is still coming to light, the heaviest civilian toll is feared to be in Mariupol, where Zelensky said he believed Russia had killed “tens of thousands”.

Moscow is believed to be trying to connect occupied Crimea with Russian-backed separatist territories Donetsk and Lugansk in Donbas, and has laid siege to the strategically located city.

Experts say its fall is inevitable, but as fighting drags toward its seventh week, the Ukrainian army is still clinging on.

On Wednesday the Land Forces of Ukraine said on Telegram that air strikes on the city continued, particularly targeting its port and the huge Azovstal iron and steel works.

The latter maze-like complex has been a focus of urban resistance in Mariupol, with fighters using a tunnel system below the vast industrial site to slow Russian forces down.

“It’s a city within a city,” said Eduard Basurin, a representative for pro-Russian separatists in the eastern Donetsk region.

“There are several underground levels that date back to Soviet times which you can’t bombard from above. You have to go underground to clean them out, and that will take time.”

Above ground, AFP journalists in Mariupol as part of a Russian military embed saw the charred remains of the city, including the theatre where 300 people were feared killed in Russian bombardment last month.

Reports emerged on Monday from Ukraine’s Azov battalion that a Russian drone had dropped a “poisonous substance” in the area, with people experiencing respiratory failure and neurological problems.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was unable to confirm the allegations, but that Washington had “credible information” Russia might use tear gas mixed with chemical agents in the besieged port.

The world’s chemical weapons watchdog said it was “concerned” by the unconfirmed reports coming from Mariupol, and was “monitoring closely”.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned the use of such weapons by Moscow would “elicit a response not just from the United States, but from the international community,” without elaborating.

 ‘Devil Incarnate’ 

Heavy bombardment continued across the east as civilians were urged to flee ahead of an expected Russian troop surge around the Donbas region, notably near the town of Izyum.

US private satellite firm Maxar Technologies published images it said showed ground forces moving towards Russia’s border with Ukraine, likely in preparation for an offensive.

In Ukraine, Maxar said it had noted convoys of military equipment travelling in and near the Donbas region — adding they comprised of around 200 vehicles including tanks, artillery and armoured personnel carriers.

Heeding the calls from authorities to flee, a steady stream of residents left by bus and train from the cities of Kramatorsk and neighbouring Sloviansk.

Kramatorsk is the Ukrainian military’s main hub for its operations in the east, and so potentially a key target.

“What is happening is inhuman, (Putin) is a fascist. I don’t know what to call him — a devil incarnate,” said 82-year-old Valentina Oleynikova, who was fleeing the city with her husband.

With little hope of a quick end to fighting, Putin pledged Moscow would proceed on its own timetable, rebuffing repeated international calls for a ceasefire.

“Our task is to fulfil and achieve all the goals set, minimising losses. And we will act rhythmically, calmly, according to the plan originally proposed by the General Staff,” he told a news conference with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

‘They will Remember’ 

President Volodymyr Zelensky (2nd L) walks in the town of Bucha, just northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv on April 4, 2022.   RONALDO SCHEMIDT / AFP

 

Putin also dismissed as “fake” claims that hundreds of civilians were killed in Bucha under Russian occupation.

Bucha Mayor Anatoly Fedoruk said more than 400 people had been found dead after Moscow’s forces withdrew, and 25 women reported being raped, as the town prepares for the return of residents who fled the fighting.

“What people will find in their homes is shocking, and they will remember the Russian occupiers for a very long time,” he said.

In nearby Gostomel, war crimes investigators were beginning a grim probe, exhuming bodies to document the cause of death.

One of those was that of the mayor, who the council said was “handing out bread to the hungry” when he was shot by Russian forces.

His is among the fates that are known.

“The town council has counted the number of missing at up to 400,” said regional prosecutor Andriy Tkach. “Perhaps not all the bodies are found.”

Zelensky sounded the alarm Tuesday about snowballing allegations of rape and sexual assault by Russian forces.

“Hundreds of cases of rape have been recorded, including those of young girls and very young children. Even of a baby,” the Ukrainian leader told Lithuanian lawmakers via video link.

 Tycoon Swap

In a separate development, Zelensky has offered to swap a pro-Kremlin tycoon — arrested after escaping from house arrest — for Ukrainians captured by Russia.

Zelensky posted a picture of a dishevelled-looking Viktor Medvedchuk — one of the richest people in Ukraine, who counts Putin among his personal friends — with his hands in cuffs and dressed in a Ukrainian army uniform.

“I propose to the Russian Federation to exchange this guy of yours for our boys and our girls who are now in Russian captivity,” Zelensky said in a video address on Telegram.

Medvedchuk, a hugely controversial figure in Ukraine, was under house arrest over accusations of attempting to steal natural resources from Russia-annexed Crimea and of handing Ukrainian military secrets to Moscow.

AFP

North Korea Slams ‘Feeble’ Biden

US President Joe Biden delivers a speech about the Russian war in Ukraine at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland on March 26, 2022. Brendan Smialowski / AFP
In this file photo, US President Joe Biden delivers a speech about the Russian war in Ukraine at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland on March 26, 2022. Brendan Smialowski / AFP

 

North Korea has described Joe Biden as an “old man in his senility”, in a characteristically colourful personal attack on the US president after he accused the Russian leader of war crimes in Ukraine.

The diatribe came after Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal” and called for him to be put on trial over alleged atrocities against civilians in Ukraine’s Bucha.

“The latest story is the US chief executive who spoke ill of the Russian president with groundless data,” said a commentary carried by the official KCNA news agency on Saturday.

“Such reckless remarks can be made only by the descendants of Yankees, master hand at aggression and plot-breeding,” it added.

READ ALSO: Ukraine War Pushes World Food Prices To Record High

It described Biden as a “president known for his repeated slip of tongue”, but stopped short of referring to him by name.

“The conclusion could be that there is a problem in his intellectual faculty and that his reckless remarks are just a show of imprudence of an old man in his senility,” said the commentary, which was issued on Saturday evening.

“Gloomy, it seems, is the future of the U.S. with such a feeble man in power.”

Along with Beijing, Russia is one of the North’s few international friends and has previously come to the regime’s aid.

Moscow has long held the line against increasing pressure on nuclear-armed North Korea, even asking for relief from international sanctions for humanitarian reasons.

Pyongyang has also sided with Moscow in its war with Ukraine, accusing the United States of being the “root cause” of the crisis.

North Korea’s state media has a long history of colourful personal attacks against foreign leaders.

Before Biden was nominated as candidate, it called him “a rabid dog” that “must be beaten to death with a stick”.

It referred to former US President Donald Trump as a “mentally deranged US dotard” and his predecessors Barack Obama and George W. Bush a “monkey” and “half-baked man”.

It also has railed against former South Korean President Park Geun-hye as a  “witch” and a “crafty prostitute”.

AFP

No ‘Significant Achievements’ So Far In Russia-Ukraine Talks – Kremlin

A photo combination of Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.

 

The Kremlin said Monday talks between negotiators from Moscow and Kyiv have so far made no major breakthroughs on the conflict in Ukraine as the delegations prepare for a new round of talks in Istanbul. 

“So far we cannot state any significant achievements or breakthroughs,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters during his daily press briefing.

“For now we cannot and will not speak of progress,” Peskov added.

He said, however, that it was “important” that it had been decided to continue the talks in person.

Read Also: Abandoned Animals Join Ukraine’s War Exodus

Peskov said that the delegations were arriving on Monday and it was “unlikely” that talks will resume the same day.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed to host the fresh talks in Istanbul during a telephone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia and Ukraine failed to make a breakthrough in their first top-level talks, on March 10 in Turkey’s Antalya, since Moscow sent its troops into Ukraine in late February.

The two sides have held regular talks via video conference but offered scant hopes for any breakthroughs with both sides describing efforts as difficult.

AFP

White House To Propose New Minimum Tax On Billionaires

US President Joe Biden speaks about the counterterrorism operation in Syria from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 3, 2022. SAUL LOEB / AFP
In this file photo, US President Joe Biden speaks about the counterterrorism operation in Syria from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on February 3, 2022. SAUL LOEB / AFP

 

US President Joe Biden’s administration will include more taxes on the wealthiest Americans in its 2023 budget proposal, due to be released on Monday, US media reported Saturday.

The “Billionaire Minimum Income Tax” would require the 700 or so American households worth more than $100 million to pay at least 20 percent on their full income, the Washington Post and other US media reported, citing a White House document.

“This minimum tax would make sure that the wealthiest Americans no longer pay a tax rate lower than teachers and firefighters,” said the document, cited by the Post.

READ ALSO: Russian Army Takes Control Of Chernobyl Staff Town, Ukraine

A study by the Biden administration this autumn found that 400 billionaire households paid an average of only 8.2 percent in taxes on their income between 2010 and 2018, a rate often well below that of many American households.

The tax would also target unrealized gains in the value of liquid assets, such as stocks, which are not taxed until they are sold.

The new measure, which requires congressional approval to be enacted, could raise up to $360 billion in new revenue over ten years, the document cited by the Post said.

A longstanding goal of the political left, the plan could dramatically change the tax paid by US billionaires.

Tech titan Elon Musk would, for example, have to pay an additional $50 billion in taxes, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos some $35 billion more, according to calculations by University of California Berkeley economist Gabriel Zucman, cited by the Post.

AFP