Russian airstrike ravages children’s hospital; White House warns Russia may use chemical weapons: Live Ukraine updates – USA TODAY

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A Russian airstrike devastated a maternity and children’s hospital complex in the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, burying women and children under debris and injuring more than a dozen, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday.

The Mariupol City Council posted video on social media of the battered buildings.

“The destruction is enormous,” the council said in a statement. “The building of the medical institution where the children were treated recently was completely destroyed. Information about the affected children is being clarified.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said people were trapped in the wreckage after the strike. He once again urged the West to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

“Atrocity! How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror?” Zelenskyy said in a Twitter post. “Close the sky right now! Stop the killings! You have power but you seem to be losing humanity.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday reiterated that the U.S. and its allies won’t establish a no-fly zone because it could drag the alliance further into the war.

The West has hit Russia with heavy economic sanctions, and on Wednesday the Kremlin threatened retaliation, also possibly in the form of sanctions, for the “economic war” it accused the U.S. of waging. 

Russia has repeatedly tried to rationalize its attack on Ukraine and has asserted that the U.S. is creating chemical and biological weapons in the country. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a troubling warning Wednesday evening that in the aftermath of the claims, “we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them.” 

The Pentagon dismissed a plan for Poland to provide fighter jets to Ukraine after the Polish government said it would give all its Soviet-built MiG-29 fighter jets to the U.S., apparently to allow them to be used by Ukraine’s military. Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said the plan would bee too “high risk” and trigger Russian retaliation while not significantly helping Ukraine’s air force. He said the U.S. is pursuing other options.

“Poland is not a side in this war … and NATO is not a side in this war,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki Morawiecki said Wednesday during a visit to Vienna. “Such a serious decision like handing over planes must be unanimous and unequivocally taken by all of the North Atlantic alliance.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called any plans by the West to provide fighter jets to Kyiv “a very undesirable and potentially dangerous scenario.” 

Latest developments:

►The price of gas across much of Europe has risen above 2 euros per liter — the equivalent of about $8.33 per gallon. Filling up a compact car can cost $100.

►Congressional leaders reached a bipartisan deal early Wednesday to provide $13.6 billion to help Ukraine and European allies amid Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. 

►Most U.S. and Asian stock markets rebounded Wednesday following Wall Street’s decline and President Joe Biden’s ban on imports of Russian crude.

►China says it is sending humanitarian aid including food and daily necessities worth 5 million yuan ($791,000) to Ukraine while continuing to oppose sanctions against Russia over its invasion.

►Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said dozens of children have been killed in the war: “The scariest figure was the 50 Ukrainian children killed in 13 days of war. But then in an hour it became 52 children. I will never forgive this. And I know that you will never forgive the occupiers.”

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VISUALS: Mapping and tracking Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

PUTIN’S BRAND OF MANHOOD: The psychology of Putin and the dangers of ‘militarized masculinity’

White House warns Russia may use chemical weapons in Ukraine

The White House issued a troubling warning Wednesday evening that Russia might attempt to use chemical weapons in its siege of Ukraine. 

The warning came from White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki after an array of claims made by the Kremlin to justify its invasion of Ukraine, including the long debunked assertion that the U.S. was creating chemical and biological weapons in the country. Without evidence, China similarly echoed the claim. 

Psaki, in a Twitter thread, responded in detail to the claims and warned it was part of a “pattern” by Russia to accuse the West “of the very violations that Russia itself is perpetrating.”

“Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them,” Psaki said. 

Russia’s accusations echo the country’s disinformation tactics used in Syria after chemical weapons were used to kill more than 1,400, including children, according to Andrew Weber, a former Pentagon official who spent decades working for the U.S. government to counter such weapons and helped in the effort to destroy Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles. 

Weber, in an interview with Mother Jones, said it was possible that Putin might use nuclear weapons in the conflict. But more possible, Weber said, would be that Putin “would use chemical or biological weapons.”

The U.S. State Department similarly said the allegations were part of a propaganda effort by the Kremlin by “inventing false pretexts in an attempt to justify its own horrific actions,” spokesman Ned Price said, adding the U.S. does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere. 

Fact check: False claim of US biolabs in Ukraine tied to Russian disinformation campaign

Christal Hayes 

VP Kamala Harris in Poland after US rejects fighter jet plan for Ukraine

Vice President Kamala Harris’ trip to staunch ally Poland is now a clean-up mission. A day after the United States declined Poland’s surprise proposal to provide Soviet-built MiG-29 fighter jets to the U.S. to give to Ukraine, Harris will meet with the country’s top leaders in Warsaw, where she will need to try to smooth over the controversy.

Harris arrived in Warsaw Wednesday, hours after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Polish leaders that the United States does not support the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force, according to Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby.

Harris will meet with Ukrainians who have fled to Poland and talk to service members in the U.S. and Polish militaries. She will also confer with allies on what more can be done to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

-Maureen Groppe, Josh Meyer and Rebecca Morin

Attack on Chernihiv may constitute war crime, Amnesty International says

Across much of Ukraine on Wednesday, efforts to rescue civilians from grim conditions were once again underway. In the Ukraine capital of Kyiv, air raid sirens blared as officials bolstered defenses in key cities  where Russian troops have laid siege, trapping civilians inside with little or no food, water or medicine.

In the southern city of Mariupol, the artillery attack that devastated a hospital complex was just the latest tragedy. Days of shelling have largely cut residents of off from the outside world and forced them to scavenge for food and water. 

In the northern city of Chernihiv, a Russian airstrike that reportedly killed 47 civilians last week may constitute a war crime, Amnesty International said Wednesday following an investigation into the attack. 

“This was a merciless, indiscriminate attack on people as they went about their daily business in their homes, streets and shops,” said Joanne Mariner, Amnesty International’s Crisis Response Director.

Mayor Vladyslav Atroshenko said two-thirds of the almost 300,000 residents are without heat and hot water. He said 60 civilians have died and 400 were wounded – but that the city is holding strong.

No-fly zone remains a non-starter for US, NATO

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken once again rejected a no-fly zone Wednesday when asked during a joint press conference with the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss. Both Blinken and Truss said even limited involvement of the U.S. or NATO would only escalate the war. 

Putting “American servicemembers in Ukraine, on Ukrainian territory, or soil, or American pilots into Ukrainian airspace – whether on a full or on a limited basis – would almost certainly lead to direct conflict between the United States, between NATO and Russia,” Blinken said. “And that would expand the conflict, it would prolong it, it would make it much more deadlier than it already is.”

Truss noted that the U.K. had agreed to supply Ukraine with additional defensive weapons. She said that was the best way to help Ukraine counter Russia’s attacks, not creating a no-fly zone.

“What we’re looking at is making sure that the Ukrainians are able to defend their own country with the best possible selection of anti-tank weapons and anti-air defense systems,” Truss said.

Deirdre Shesgreen

Will Russia’s rich bail on Putin’s war? 

Vacated Mediterranean villas, marooned superyachts in search of accepting ports and billions in assets seized or devalued are just some of the headaches Russia’s kleptocratic elite now face over President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The so-called Russian oligarchs who surround the Kremlin – a small cadre of several dozen men who have made their riches thanks to connections to Putin’s government – are seen by U.S. and European officials as key to curbing the Russian invasion of Ukraine and potentially building a post-Putin Russia.

“Part of why I think it’s so important to go after the Russian oligarchs and the rest of the elite is that suddenly a bunch of oligarchs had to get on private jets, flee Monaco and the south of France and other places they have their homes and head back to Moscow,” said Max Bergmann, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Read more here.

Matthew Brown

White House: Digital money won’t help Russia evade sanctions

The Biden administration’s new executive order meant to promote future innovation in cryptocurrency was not affected by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the White House says. Senior officials say they are confident that cryptocurrencies can’t serve as an effective workaround for sanctions the U.S. and its allies have imposed on Russian elites and financial intuitions, especially the Russian Central Bank.

Russian banks and citizens have been rushing to transfer their assets into cryptocurrency as the ruble tumbles in value under severe Western sanctions meant to curtail the Kremlin’s war machine.

Kremlin says US ‘economic war’ could bring retaliation

The U.S. is waging a “de facto economic war” and Russia could react with retaliatory actions, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday. Peskov was commenting on the U.S. ban on Russian energy imports and a comment on the war by Victoria Nuland, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, that the U.S. “must ensure that this Ukraine gambit is a strategic failure for Putin.”

The U.S., European Union, United Kingdom and a scores of other nations have also introduced sanctions against Russian legal entities and private individuals.

“The U.S., undoubtedly, declared an economic war against Russia and they are waging this war,” Peskov said. He said Russia will do “what in the best way corresponds to our interests” but gave no details on the possible retaliatory sanctions.

Chernobyl loses power; Ukraine says radioactive leak possible

The Chernobyl Nuclear Plant, occupied by Russian troops for several days, has been disconnected from the power grid and is a threat to leak radioactive substances, Ukraine’s Ukrenergo National Power Company said. Repairs are impossible because of enemy fire and the military presence, the utility said.

The state-run nuclear company Energoatom said radioactive substances could be released from the plant because it cannot properly cool spent nuclear fuel. The International Atomic Energy Agency, however, said the spent fuel storage pool and the volume of cooling water are “sufficient for effective heat removal” without access to electricity

The plant, the site of one of the world’s worst nuclear disasters in 1986, has not produced power in several years. Decommissioning has not been completed, however, and authorities say there are about 20,000 spent fuel assemblies at Chernobyl that cannot be kept cool amid a power outage.

WHAT HAPPENED AT CHERNOBYL? What to know about nuclear disaster

McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coke and GE suspend business in Russia 

McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca-Cola and General Electric – ubiquitous global brands and symbols of U.S. corporate might – all announced Tuesday they were temporarily suspending their business in Russia in response to the country’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Our values mean we cannot ignore the needless human suffering unfolding in Ukraine,” McDonald’s President and CEO Chris Kempczinski said in an open letter to employees. The Chicago-based burger giant said it will temporarily close 850 stores but continue paying its 62,000 employees in Russia.

McDonald’s is likely to take the biggest financial hit. Unlike Starbucks and other fast food companies, like KFC and Pizza Hut, whose Russian locations are owned by franchisees, McDonald’s owns 84% of its Russian stores. 

Starbucks on Tuesday said it would temporarily close 130 Russian stores owned and operated by a franchisee, after earlier saying it would be donating profits from those stores to humanitarian relief efforts in Ukraine. Read more here.

– Associated Press

US officials put Americans on alert for Russian cyberattacks

U.S. officials are highly concerned the war in Ukraine could impact American cyber networks as the war enters its third week and Russian President Vladimir Putin grows more isolated.

The nation’s main federal cybersecurity agency told USA TODAY on Tuesday it has been encouraging U.S. organizations to up their security.

“While there are not any specific, credible, cyber threats to the U.S., we encourage all organizations – regardless of size – to take steps now to improve their cybersecurity and safeguard their critical assets,” the Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency said in a statement.

The Biden administration sought $10 billion last week in emergency funding from Congress in defense aid, including to support Ukraine’s cyber defenses, as well as $28 million to bolster the FBI’s “investigative and operational response to cyber threats stemming from the Russia threat and war on Ukraine,” according to the supplemental funding request.

– Tami Abdollah

15 years for calling Ukraine invasion a ‘war’? Russia’s new censorship law.

As Russia grows increasingly isolated from the Western world as a result of sanctions and bans over its invasion of Ukraine, the Kremlin has, in some ways, embraced the isolation by pushing out non-Russian speech and press.

A bill was quickly passed through both houses of the Kremlin-controlled parliament and signed by Putin on March 4 that criminalizing the intentional spread of information that goes against the government’s narrative, were certain words like “war” and “invasion” can land someone in prison for up to 15 years.

Experts told USA TODAY that Russia has been clamping down on free speech and independent press for years – even decades – without such momentous reaction. The country has even passed a number of similar laws in the past.

This time, the implications could be much more dangerous. Read more here.

– Celina Tebor

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Biden bans Russian oil in hopes of disrupting ‘Putin’s war machine’

Amid rising gas prices, President Biden declares that Russian oil, gas and energy exports will no longer be accepted at US ports.

Associated Press, USA TODAY

Contributing: The Associated Press