RUSSIA says it has struck and disabled Ukraine’s Starokostiantyniv military air base with long-range high-precision weapons.
‘The Russia armed forces continue to strike the military infrastructure of Ukraine,’ Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Sunday, destroying a Ukrainian-controlled S-300 missile system and downing 10 Ukrainian planes and helicopters over the past 24 hours.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that Russian forces are preparing to shell Odessa, the historic port city on the Black Sea coast.
They have made progress in southern Ukraine since their February 24 special military operation, overrunning the city of Kherson and besieging the port of Mariupol, but Odessa has so far been largely spared.
The city council of Mariupol said it will begin efforts to evacuate its civilian population, after earlier efforts failed due to ceasefire violations, with both sides trading blame.
An earlier attempt on Saturday to allow civilians to leave by buses and private cars along the road northwest towards Zaporizhzhia failed when both sides accused the other of shelling.
According to aid agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) the humanitarian situation in Mariupol is ‘catastrophic’ with no power or water in civilian homes.
If Russian forces succeed in capturing Mariupol, they will control Ukraine’s entire Azov Sea coast.
This would give them a landbridge from Russia to Crimea and an important supply route and port if they decide to push north in a bid to take all of eastern Ukraine.
Kiev has pressed for further Western help, including more sanctions and weapons.
Before Russia launched its military operation nearly two weeks ago, over 50 Western planeloads of weapons had already been delivered into Ukraine.
And the United States says it is working on a deal with Poland to supply Ukraine with Soviet-era warplanes to boost its air force capabilities.
The White House said it is negotiating with Poland and consulting other NATO allies but that there are ‘a number of challenging practical questions, including how the planes could actually be transferred from Poland to Ukraine.’
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking to reporters during a visit to Moldova on Sunday (before going on to visit Poland) said the US is ‘working actively’ to send planes to Poland if Warsaw decides to send fighter jets to Ukraine.
‘Can’t speak to a timeline but I can just say we’re looking at it very, very actively,’ he said.
On Saturday, Ukrainian president Zelensky addressed almost 300 US lawmakers by video call, pleading for further funding, a no-fly zone over his country, and an embargo on Russian oil imports.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke of ‘colossal and catastrophic consequences not only for Europe but also the whole world’ if such a step were taken.
‘Any movement in this direction will be considered by us as participation in an armed conflict by that country,’ Putin said.
Hitting out at stiffening Western sanctions, the Russian leader said: ‘A lot of what we’re coming up against right now is a way of waging war against Russia.
‘The sanctions against Russia are akin to a declaration of war. But thank God we’re not at that point yet.’
Putin also dismissed rumours that the Kremlin plans to declare martial law in Russia, following a report from an unnamed ‘independent Russian-based protest monitor’ that over 559 people had been detained in 21 cities across Russia for protesting against the war.
Meanwhile, Zelensky announced that he’d spoken by phone to his US counterpart Joe Biden to discuss financial support and sanctions against Russia.
‘The agenda included the issues of security, financial support for Ukraine and the continuation of sanctions against Russia,’ Zelensky tweeted.
Hours earlier, US lawmakers promised an additional $10 billion aid package, but the White House has so far balked at an oil ban, fearing it would hike prices and hurt American consumers already stung by record inflation.
Last week, Washington authorised $350 million of military equipment for Kiev – the largest such package in US history.
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office said he is to launch an international ‘plan of action’ to ensure Russia’s military operation in Ukraine fails.
Russian forces have been inching closer to the capital Kiev.
A Zelensky claimed on Saturday that Ukrainian forces were counterattacking around Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, inflicting ‘such losses on the invaders that they have not seen even in their worst dream’.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba was equally defiant, saying: ‘Ukraine is bleeding, but Ukraine has not fallen, and stands both feet on the ground… The myth of the unbeatable and almighty Russian army is already ruined.’
The economic and humanitarian toll of the war has spiralled and officials have reported hundreds of civilians killed. Western weapons, ammunition and funds have poured into Ukraine.
The United Nations said in a statement on Twitter over the weekend: ‘More than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed into neighbouring countries in 10 days – the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.’
- French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has urged Britain to do more to help Ukrainian refugees stuck in the French port of Calais, saying British officials are turning many away because they don’t have the necessary visas or paperwork.
‘I have twice contacted my British counterpart; I told her to set up a consulate in Calais,’ Darmanin told Europe 1 radio, referring to British Home Secretary Priti Patel.
Darmanin said hundreds of Ukrainian refugees had arrived at Calais in the last few days, hoping to join family in the UK, but that many had been turned away by British officials and told to obtain visas at UK consulates in Paris or Brussels.
Darmanin and Patel have clashed in the past over how France and Britain tackle the issue of migrants – many from Africa and the Middle East – risking their lives by crossing the English Channel in makeshift dinghies.
Last November, 27 migrants died when they tried to cross the English Channel in a dinghy.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting eastern Poland near the border with Ukraine amid the stalemate in Kiev-Moscow security talks.
He arrived in the Polish city of Rzeszow on Saturday for talks with Poland’s top officials and scheduled to go to a frontier post ‘to meet with Ukrainian refugees’.
Rzeszow is about 80 kilometres from the Ukraine border and its airport has become a major hub for flights carrying military supplies for Ukrainian armed forces.
Blinken met with Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau a day after attending a summit meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels during which the US-led military alliance reiterated its pledge to expand support for eastern flank members such as Poland against Russia’s military operation.
Blinken declared his visit to Poland comes at ‘one of the most urgent moments in the long history between our two countries,’ and vowing that recent deployments of American forces to the country would continue.
The development comes amid reports of a massive US-led transfer of advanced weapons into Ukraine despite Russian warnings that the huge delivery of modern armaments could fall into the hands of terrorists who’d use weapons, such as the shoulder-fired anti-aircraft systems, to threaten civilian aviation.
Blinken’s Polish counterpart said his country had already taken in more than 700,000 Ukrainian refugees and that he expected hundreds of thousands more in the coming weeks if the conflict in the neighbouring country continues.
‘Poland will never recognise territorial changes brought about by unprovoked, unlawful aggression,’ he then claimed, insisting that Warsaw will demand that alleged Russian ‘war crimes committed in Ukraine’ will be prosecuted.
Following his meeting with Blinken, Morawiecki also said they had agreed on the need to further bolster NATO’s eastern flank and strengthen Europe’s security architecture.
According to the report, Warsaw is pleading for the deployment of more US troops on its territory, where there are already over 10,000 American forces.
They also discussed expanding anti-Russia sanctions and freezing Moscow’s assets, which Morawiecki said should be ‘crushing’ for Russia’s economy.
He then underlined that no Russian banks should be exempted from the exclusions from the SWIFT system, as all but the largest Russian banks have been kicked off the financial messaging service.
Although NATO has ruled out establishing a no-fly zone over non-member Ukraine, it has significantly boosted both military and humanitarian assistance.