A veteran aide of Russian president Vladimir Putin has resigned over the Ukraine war and left Russia with no intention to return, two sources said on Wednesday, marking the first senior official to break with the Kremlin since Mr Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine a month ago.
The Kremlin confirmed that the aide, Anatoly Chubais, had resigned of his own accord. Mr Chubais hung up the phone when contacted by Reuters. Mr Chubais was one of the principal architects of former Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s economic reforms of the 1990s and was Mr Putin’s boss in the future president’s first Kremlin job. He later ran big state businesses under Mr Putin and held political jobs, lately serving as Kremlin special envoy to international organisations.
US president Joe Biden flew to Europe on Wednesday for an emergency Nato summit on Ukraine, where invading Russian troops are stalled, cities are under bombardment and the besieged port of Mariupol is in flames.
Nato will likely decide on Thursday to ramp up military forces on its eastern flank, Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday, ahead of the alliance's summit in Brussels scheduled for Thursday.
Nato is seeking to deploy four new combat units in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. “I expect leaders will agree to strengthen Nato’s posture in all domains, with major increases in the eastern part of the alliance. On land, in the air and at sea,” Mr Stoltenberg told a news conference.
Four weeks into a war that has driven one-quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people from their homes, Russia has failed to capture a single major Ukrainian city, while western sanctions have ostracised it from the world economy.
After failing in what western countries say was an attempt to seize Kyiv and depose the Ukrainian government, Russian forces have taken heavy losses, been frozen in place for at least a week on most fronts and face supply problems and fierce resistance.
They have turned to siege tactics and bombardment of cities, causing massive destruction and many civilian deaths.
Worst hit has been Mariupol, a southern port completely surrounded by Russian forces, where hundreds of thousands of people have been sheltering since the war’s early days, under constant bombardment and with food, water and heat supplies cut.
Almost 100,000 people remain trapped in Mariupol, facing starvation amid “constant” Russian bombardment, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said, as he appealed for the release of a convoy he said had been captured by Russian forces.
In a video address late on Tuesday, he renewed his calls for Russia to allow safe humanitarian corridors, and said civilians in Mariupol faced “inhumane conditions. In a total siege. Without food, water, medication, under constant shelling and under constant bombing.”
More than 7,000 people had escaped the city in the past 24 hours, he said. However, one humanitarian convoy travelling on an agreed route west of the city had been “captured by the occupiers”.
The convoy near Mangush consisted of bus drivers and emergency service personnel. “We are doing everything we can to free our people and unblock the movement of humanitarian aid,” he said.
The residents who have already fled the besieged port city bring harrowing testimony of a “freezing hellscape riddled with dead bodies and destroyed buildings”, according to Human Rights Watch.
Satellite images of Mariupol released by Maxar on Tuesday showed a charred landscape, with several buildings ablaze and smoke billowing from the city. The Pentagon has said Russia was now pummelling Mariupol using artillery, long-range missiles and naval ships deployed in the nearby Sea of Azov.
The US has assessed that members of Russia’s forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine, US secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Wednesday, adding that Washington’s conclusion was based on a “careful review” of available information from public and intelligence sources.
Mr Blinken said there had been “numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities” by Russia’s forces in Ukraine, specifying attacks in Mariupol.
Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, told reporters on Wednesday that 264 civilians in the city had been killed by Russian attacks. The noise of bombs falling could be heard in the background as he spoke. But Ukrainian forces had retaken the nearby towns of Makariv and Irpin from Russian control, he said.
Russian investigative website The Insider said on Wednesday that one of its reporters had been killed in Kyiv when Russian forces shelled a suburb where she had been filming damage from an earlier attack. “Insider journalist Oksana Baulina died during a bombardment in Kyiv while carrying out an editorial assignment . . . another civilian died with her,” the outlet, whose editorial offices are based in Latvia, said on its website. At least five journalists have now died since Russian forces invaded Ukraine last month.
Amid the bloodshed in Ukraine, Mr Zelenskiy held out hope for negotiations with Russia, which have yielded little since the invasion began on February 24th, amid baseless claims by Mr Putin that Ukraine posed a threat to Russia. “It’s very difficult, sometimes confrontational,” Mr Zelenskiy said. “But step by step we are moving forward.”
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also described the peace talks as difficult, saying the Ukrainian side “constantly changes its mind and backs away from its own proposals”.
For the first time, there are signs that Ukrainian forces are going on the offensive, retaking a town near Kyiv and launching counterattacks in the south of the country, amid claims that Russian forces have just a few days of supplies remaining.
In the face of intense Ukrainian resistance, the Pentagon believes Russia’s forces may have been reduced by as much as 10 per cent in the four weeks of fighting since the invasion began.
No journalists have been able to report from inside the Ukrainian-held parts of Mariupol for more than a week, during which time Ukrainian officials say Russia has bombed a theatre and an art school used as bomb shelters, burying hundreds of people alive. Russia denies targeting those buildings.
Nato and European leaders are expected to roll out additional sanctions against Russia on Thursday. Sources said the US package would include measures targeting Russian members of parliament.
Mr Biden will also visit Poland, which has taken in most of the more than 3.6 million refugees who have fled Ukraine and has been the main route for western supplies of weapons to Ukraine.
In a sign of Moscow’s further isolation, Poland announced it was expelling 45 Russian diplomats accused of either being undercover spies or “associated” with them. Several other eastern European countries have announced similar moves in recent days, although not on such a large scale. Russia has rejected all the accusations.
Poland has proposed sending Nato peacekeepers to Ukraine, although Mr Biden has long since ruled out any such ground presence. Mr Lavrov said such a move could lead to war with the West.
Despite its losses so far, Russia may still be hoping to make more gains on the battlefield, especially in the east, in territory including Mariupol which Moscow demands Ukraine cede to Russian-backed separatists.
In a daily intelligence update, Britain’s defence ministry said the entire battlefield across northern Ukraine – which includes huge armoured columns that once bore down on Kyiv – was now “static”, with invaders apparently trying to reorganise.
But in the east, the Russians were trying to link troops at Mariupol with those near Kharkiv in the hope of encircling Ukrainian forces, while in the southwest they were bypassing the city of Mykolayiv to try to advance on Odessa, Ukraine’s biggest port.
Ukrainian officials on Wednesday described sporadic shelling in other cities overnight, with two civilians killed in the Mykolayiv region, a bridge destroyed in the Chernihiv region, and residential buildings and a shopping mall struck in two districts of Kyiv, wounding at least four people.
Meanwhile, life continues under the relentless bombardment. In Kharkiv in the east, a maternity clinic had moved patients into the basement for safety. Tearful mother Yana cradled her baby in a room with beds lining the walls. Her house had been bombed. “I have nowhere to go,” she said.
Far away in Mykolayiv, a southern port which Russian forces tried and failed to storm over the past 10 days, Tamara Kravchuk (37) lay blissfully with her baby just minutes old on her chest. She had been scared, especially when explosions burst just 500m from the hospital, she said. But baby Katya melted her fears away.
“I think the war will end and we will live as it was before, our life will be calm again,” she said. “I hope our children won’t see all these crazy things and everything will be good.” – Guardian/Reuters