Defiant Ukrainians rejected Russia‘s surrender demands Monday and vowed to keep fighting even in the face of indiscriminate shelling and a growing death toll, while relations between Moscow and the West sunk to a post-Cold War low amid outrage over the “massive war crimes” committed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his troops.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell became the latest high-ranking official to describe Russia‘s horrific attacks in the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol as war crimes. In using such strong language, he joined President Bidenwho last week called Mr. Putin a “war criminal” because of Russia‘s seemingly indiscriminate shelling of non-military targets and acts of violence against civilians in Mariupol and elsewhere across Ukraine.
The comment sparked a harsh rebuke from the Kremlin, with officials warning Monday that relations between the US and Russia are “on the verge of a breach.” Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council Dmitry Medvedev further went, slamming Mr. Biden and other US officials as “puppeteers” seeking to drive a wedge between Russia and the rest of the world, particularly European nations such as Polandwhere Mr. Biden will travel later this week.
In another sign the conflict remains in a dangerous dynamic, Mr. Biden warned that Russia could soon launch a fresh wave of cyberattacks against American companies, a move that would almost certainly spark additional economic sanctions and other repercussions from Washington.
With the war nearly a month old, Ukrainian officials continued to stand strong and reject calls to surrender Mariupol to the Russian invaders. The city has faced a weeks-long bombardment from Russian troops, leading to untold numbers of casualties and a massive exodus of civilians out of the city. Those who remain have no electricity and little food and water as Russian forces seek to bomb and starve the city into submission.
“There can be no question of any surrender” in Mariupolsaid Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.
To date, despite a huge edge in manpower and weaponry, the Russian invaders have yet to capture a single major Ukrainian town, and defenders are digging in in Kyiv, Kharkiv and other major urban areas.
In a video address Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the aftermath of Russia‘s bombing of a Mariupol art school on Sunday. An estimated 400 people were inside at the time, including children. It’s unclear how many were killed.
Mr. Zelenskyy used the incident as a rallying cry.
“They are under the rubble, and we don’t know how many of them have survived,” Mr. Zelenskyy said. “But we know that we will certainly shoot down the pilot who dropped that bomb, like about 100 other such mass murderers whom we already have downed.”
Mr. Zelenskyy in recent days again expressed openness to negotiating directly with Mr. Putin in hopes of ending the bloodshed. Ongoing negotiations between the two nations have made little progress.
In addition to the continuous bombing campaign on MariupolRussian forces on Monday struck targets outside Kyiv, and heavy fighting was reported north of the city. Russian troops late Sunday reportedly struck a shopping mall near Kyiv’s city center, killing at least eight people, according to Ukrainian emergency officials.
Moscow claimed the site was being used as a military depot. Those claims were not immediately verified.
War of words
Bombings and rocket attacks have become Russia‘s weapons of choice as its ground forces have struggled so far to achieve their key objectives. Western officials say that Russia‘s military campaign largely has ground to a halt because of tougher-than-expected resistance from Ukrainian forces.
“Russian forces advancing on the city from the northeast have stalled. Forces advancing from the direction of Hostomel to the northwest have been repulsed by fierce Ukrainian resistance,” the British Ministry of Defense tweeted Monday in an analysis of the state of play in Ukraine.
“Despite the continued lack of progress, Kyiv remains Russia‘s primary military objective and they are likely to prioritize attempting to encircle the city over the coming weeks,” the ministry said.
US defense officials have offered similar assessments in recent days, and a pro-Kremlin tabloid on Monday unexpectedly opened a window on Russian military losses so far.
In an online story that was quickly removed, Komsomolskaya Pravda revealed that some 9,861 Russian soldiers have died in Ukraine and 16,153 were injured, according to recent Defense Ministry figures. Russian officials have not updated their casualty count from the operation since March 2, when it said some 498 soldiers had been killed. Kyiv claims that nearly 15,000 Russian troops have been killed, a figure that cannot be independently verified.
While Russia‘s war machine may have stalled, its rhetorical assault on the West went into overdrive Monday. The Russian Foreign Ministry said that US-Russian relations are on the verge of a major “breach” following Mr. Biden‘s “unacceptable statements” that Mr. Putin is a war criminal.
The White House and State Department said later that Mr. Biden was “speaking from the heart” and not announcing a formal war crimes charge against Mr. Putin. But US officials again on Monday said the brutal tactics of Russia‘s invading force will get serious scrutiny.
“We certainly see clear evidence that Russian forces are committing war crimes and we are helping with the collecting of evidence of that,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters Monday. “But there’s investigative processes that are going to go on, and we’re going to let that happen. … As for what would come out of that, that’s not a decision that the Pentagon leadership would make.”
“What’s happening now in Mariupol is a massive war crime, destroying everything, bombarding and killing everybody,” said Mr. Borrellthe European Union‘s representative for foreign affairs and security policy.
Administration officials acknowledged last week that the US government was already working with private rights groups to document Russian military operations for a possible war crimes investigation down the road. Other NATO nations will likely assist in such an investigation.
Such close cooperation between the US and Europe on investigations, economic sanctions and other issues have enraged the Kremlin. Russia‘s Foreign Ministry on Monday summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan to complain about Mr. Biden‘s remarks.
“Remarks such as these by the American president, which are unworthy of a state figure of such a high rank, put Russian-American relations on the verge of a breach,” the ministry said in its statement.
Mr. Medvedevwho served as Russia‘s president from 2008 to 2012, took specific aim at the ties between the US and Polandwhich hasn’t flinched in its opposition to Moscow even as hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees flood across its border and as Russian rockets fall just miles from its territory.
“The interests of Polish citizens are being sacrificed for Russophobia by these talentless politicians and their puppeteers from across the ocean with clear signs of senility,” he said in a Telegram post.
There also have been clear disagreements between the US and Polandincluding a dust-up two weeks ago which saw Washington scuttle a Polish plan to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine via American military bases in Germany. US officials are stiff-arming another proposal being pushed by Warsaw to assemble a NATO “peacekeeping” mission to deploy to Ukraine.
“The president has been very clear that we will not put American troops on the ground in Ukraine,” US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield told CNN over the weekend, ruling out US forces being part of the mission. “We don’t want to escalate this into a war with the United States.”
Mr. Biden will use his visit to Poland later this week to tamp down tensions between the two countries and highlight Warsaw’s efforts to accommodate the vast streams of Ukrainian refugees within its borders. The president on Monday held a pre-trip call with top European leaders to discuss new military and humanitarian assistance for Kyiv .
Mr. Biden joined a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, the White House said. Mr. Biden’s trip will include meetings with NATO officials, European Union leaders and representatives of the Group of Seven industrial powers.
In Washington, meanwhile, there is growing fear that Russia’s angry rhetoric could transform into action.
In a statement Monday, Mr. Biden warned of “evolving intelligence” that shows the “Russian government is exploring options for potential cyberattacks” against US targets.
The statement did not elaborate on what exactly the intelligence revealed or what the US response might be.
Mr. Biden urged US companies to accelerate efforts to protect themselves against the threat of a cyberattack, adding the federal government is willing to help them fend off a move by Russia.
“My administration will continue to use every tool to deter, disrupt, and if necessary, respond to cyberattacks against critical infrastructure,” he said.
— David R. Sands, Jeff Mordock and Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire-service reports.