Western leaders meeting in Brussels on Thursday agreed to strengthen their forces in Eastern Europe, increase military aid to Ukraine and tighten their sanctions on Russia as Moscow’s assault on its neighbour entered its second month.
In a display of unity at an unprecedented triple summit of NATO, the G7 and the European Union, the military alliance announced new battle groups to be stationed in four Eastern European countries.
The United States and Britain expanded their sanctions blacklists. Countries announced new packages of military and humanitarian aid and promises to take in refugees. The EU was due to announce steps to wean itself off Russian energy.
“We agreed to strengthen our deterrence and defence for the longer-term. We also agreed to give further support to Ukraine and to continue to impose costs on Russia,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after leaders gathered at NATO headquarters.
Still, those pledges stopped short of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s calls for a full boycott of Russian energy products and a no-fly zone over Ukraine, where thousands of people have been killed, millions become refugees, and cities pulverised since Russian leader Vladimir Putin unleashed his invasion on Feb. 24.
UNICEF said on Thursday more than half of Ukraine’s children had now been driven from their homes.
In the besieged southern port of Mariupol, hundreds of thousands of people have been hiding in basements with no running water, food, medicine or power.
In a part of the city now captured by Russian troops, a patch of grass between charred hulks of blasted apartment buildings had become a makeshift graveyard, with freshly-dug mounds marked with plastic flowers and crosses made from broken window frames.
The thud of explosions could be heard in the distance when a Reuters team reached there on Wednesday.
Viktoria was burying her 73-year-old stepfather Leonid, killed when the car ferrying him to a hospital was blown up 12 days ago. He had taken her seat in the car, she told Reuters, pointing to the mangled remains of the vehicle.
“It could have been me,” she sobbed.
Ukrainian officials accused Russia on Thursday of having forcibly deported 15,000 people from the city to Russia. Moscow denies this.
In a month of fighting, Ukraine has fended off what many Western military analysts had anticipated would be a quick Russian victory.
So far Russia has failed to capture a single major city. Its armoured columns have barely moved in weeks and are stalled at the gates of the capital Kyiv while besieging cities in the east. They have taken heavy casualties and are running low on supplies.
Ukrainian officials say they are now shifting onto the offensive in much of the country and have pushed back Russian forces, including north of Kyiv.
“In some sectors the enemy was driven back by more than 70 km (44 miles), in some sectors the enemy is at a distance of 35 km,” Defence Ministry spokesperson Oleksander Motuzyanyk told a briefing.
Ukraine said its forces had destroyed the Russian landing ship the “Orsk” at the Russian-occupied port of Berdyansk on the Azov Sea.
Video footage, which Reuters confirmed was filmed from inside Berdyansk, showed a column of smoke rising from a blaze at a dock and the flash of an explosion. Russian officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Faced with the biggest military crisis in Europe since the Balkans wars of the 1990s, Western leaders huddled in Brussels for a day of emergency summits of NATO, the G7 and the EU.
“We must ensure that the decision to invade a sovereign independent country is understood to be a strategic failure that carries with it ruinous costs for Putin and Russia,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the EU parliament.
As US President Joe Biden rallied allies on his first trip aboard since the war began, Washington announced its latest sanctions against Russia and a new $1 billion humanitarian aid package for Ukraine. It said it would take in 100 000 refugees.
Zelenskiy, who has won admiration across the West for his leadership under fire, urged people around the world to take to the streets in support of Ukraine.
“Come from your offices, your homes, your schools and universities, come in the name of peace, come with Ukrainian symbols to support Ukraine, to support freedom, to support life,” he said in a video address.
Tens of thousands of people are still believed to be trapped inside Mariupol under Russian bombardment, having had no access to food, power, water or heat since the war’s early days.
Satellite photographs from commercial firm Maxar showed massive destruction of what was once a city of 400 000 people, with residential apartment buildings in flames.
Journalists have not been able to report from inside the Ukrainian-held part of Mariupol for 10 days, during which time Ukraine says Russia has bombed a theatre and an art school being used as bomb shelters, burying hundreds of people alive.
In the Russian-held part of the city, trucks arrived with food supplies in cardboard boxes bearing the “Z” logo that has become the Russian symbol of its “special operation”. Hundreds of people, many elderly, had emerged from the surrounding ruins, queuing mostly in silence as men in Russian emergencies ministry uniforms distributed the boxes.
Angelina, a young mother of two, said she had received bread, nappies and baby food.
“It’s difficult to leave by bus now. We hope the number of people trying to get out will go down and it will get easier for us to leave,” she said.
Ukraine’s armed forces chief of staff said on Thursday Russia was still trying to resume offensive operations to capture the cities of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol.