US President Joe Biden on Saturday castigated Vladimir Putin over the month-old war in Ukraine, bluntly calling the Russian leader “a butcher” who “cannot remain in power”.
In an impassioned speech from the Royal Castle in Warsaw, delivered after meeting top Ukrainian ministers in Poland and earlier conferring with Nato and EU allies on the conflict, Biden plainly warned Russia: “Don’t even think about moving on one single inch of Nato territory.”
Although the White House moved quickly to temper Biden’s unprecedented comments on Putin – insisting the US leader is not seeking “regime change” in Russia and was referring to his influence over neighbours in the region – the Kremlin made its displeasure clear.
Personal attacks, one official said, were “narrowing down the window of opportunity” for bilateral relations.
Biden coupled his harsh words for Putin with a pointed attempt to appeal to ordinary Russians, saying they were “not our enemy” and urging them to blame their president for the heavy sanctions imposed by the West.
He offered reassurance to Ukrainians in the audience and elsewhere, at a time when nearly four million of them have been driven out of their country. “We stand with you,” he said.
Biden also cast doubt on Russia’s signal that it may scale down its war aims to concentrate on eastern Ukraine – even as two Russian missile strikes slammed into the west of the country.
The president said he was “not sure” Moscow has indeed changed its objectives, which, so far, he said had resulted in “strategic failure”.
Two Russian missiles earlier struck a fuel depot in western Ukraine’s Lviv, a rare attack on a city just 70km from the Polish border, which has escaped serious fighting.
At least five people were wounded, regional governor Maksym Kozytsky said, as AFP journalists in the city centre saw plumes of thick black smoke.
Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb 24, vowing to destroy the country’s military and topple pro-Western President Volodymyr Zelensky.
But his army has made little progress on capturing key cities, and it has hit hospitals, residential buildings and schools in increasingly deadly attacks on civilians.
Biden, who was winding up a whirlwind visit to Poland after holding a series of urgent summits in Brussels with Western allies, earlier met Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov in Warsaw in an emphatic show of support for Kyiv.
Both ministers had made a rare trip out of Ukraine for the face-to-face talks, in a possible sign of growing confidence in their battle against Russian forces.
In a possible shift on a plan to transfer Soviet-era fighter jets from Poland to Kyiv to boost Ukraine’s firepower in the skies – rejected last month by the Pentagon as too “high risk” – Kuleba said the US now did not object.
“As far as we can conclude, the ball is now on the Polish side,” Kuleba said in written comments to AFP after the meeting.
In a video address, Zelensky reiterated a call for planes while urging allies to supply Ukraine with more weapons.
Biden also met with Ukrainian refugees, saying he had been asked by children to pray for family members who had joined the fighting.
“I remember what it’s like when you have someone in a war zone and every morning you get up and you wonder… You are praying you don’t get that phone call,” said Biden, whose son Beau served in Iraq before dying of a brain tumour.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meanwhile, announced an additional US$100 million in aid to help Ukraine police and border guards purchase armoured vehicles, equipment and medical supplies, a statement said.
On the frontlines, Russia’s far-bigger military continued to combat determined Ukrainian defenders who are using Western-supplied weapons – from near the capital Kyiv to Kharkiv, the Donbas region and the devastated southern port city of Mariupol.
In the eastern Kharkiv region, four soldiers and a civilian were killed Saturday when a Russian bombardment hit a high school in the town of Bervenkove, Ukrainian authorities said.
A humanitarian convoy leaving Mariupol, including ambulances carrying wounded children arrived in Zaporizhzhia after being held up at Russian checkpoints for two days, a Ukrainian official said.
“The ambulances carrying wounded children are also queueing. The people have been deprived of water and food for two days,” she wrote on Telegram, blasting Russian troops for “creating obstacles”.
Authorities have said they fear some 300 civilians in Mariupol may have died in a Russian air strike on a theatre being used as a bomb shelter last week, with around 170,000 people still trapped in the besieged city.
In Kharkiv, where local authorities reported 44 artillery strikes and 140 rocket assaults in a single day, residents were resigned to the incessant bombardments.
‘Used to explosions’
Anna Kolinichenko, who lives in a three-room flat with her sister and brother-in-law, said they don’t even bother to head down to the cellar when the sirens go off.
“If a bomb drops, we’re going to die anyway,” she said. “We are getting a little used to explosions”.
Artillery attacks in the city of Brovary, easy of Kyiv, cost three lives, regional officials said in a statement, and a 19th century Orthodox church was destroyed.
Russian forces have taken control of Slavutych, the town where workers at the Chernobyl nuclear plant live, briefly detaining the mayor, regional Ukrainian authorities said.
Residents of the town protested, prompting the invading forces to fire shots in the air and lob stun grenades into the crowd.
Kyiv’s mayor cancelled a planned 35-hour curfew, as Britain’s defence ministry said Ukrainian counter-attacks were underway near the capital.
Ukraine’s defence ministry said its forces had recaptured Trostianets, a town near the Russian border that was one of the first to fall under Moscow’s control.
Images published by the ministry showed Ukrainian soldiers and civilians among heavily damaged buildings and what appeared to be abandoned Russian military equipment.
Ukrainian troops are also attempting to recapture Kherson, the only major city held by Russian forces troops, a Pentagon official said on Friday.
In the face of unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance, Russia’s army has exhibited poor discipline and morale, suffering from faulty equipment and employing tactics sometimes involving brutality toward civilians, Western analysts say.
In his video address, President Zelensky said Ukrainian forces would “inevitably come” for Russian troops.
“For them, it is better to flee than die.”