Russian airstrikes hit western Ukraine; Congress passes billions in aid money: Live updates – USA TODAY

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As civilian and military deaths mount in Ukraine, the United States is set on Friday to escalate its flood of economic blows against Moscow and Russia plans to advance its talking points at the U.N. Security Council.

The U.S. is expected to move forward on revoking Russia’s permanent normal trade relations status, which would allow new tariffs on Russian imports. President Joe Biden is set to make the announcement Friday, according to a source familiar with the decision. The move will require congressional action.

A diplomatic confrontation is also expected in the U.N. Security Council on Friday. Russia requested the meeting to discuss its claims of “the military biological activities of the U.S. on the territory of Ukraine.”

The Biden administration has forcefully denied that assertion, saying Moscow could be laying the groundwork for its own attack. 

“This is exactly the kind of false flag effort we have warned Russia might initiate to justify a biological or chemical weapons attack,” Olivia Dalton, spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations said late Thursday. 

On Friday, Russian airstrikes hit near airports in western Ukraine that left two Ukrainian servicemen dead and six people wounded, according to the head of the surrounding Volyn region, Yuriy Pohulyayko. 

The strikes came after Russian forces attacked the Ukrainian city Mariupol as civilians face increasingly dire conditions with scarce food, fuel, and electricity. Bodies are being buried in mass graves

Latest developments:

►Congress passed $13.6 billion in humanitarian aid money for Ukraine and allies as part of a larger spending package that received bipartisan support in the Senate on Thursday.

►The Kremlin displayed harried confusion in its response to international outrage over the bombing of a children’s hospital. One official said the hospital had been emptied of patients and was being used as an extremist base. Later, Russia denied responsibility entirely and claimed the attack was staged.

►The U.N. refugee agency says more than 2.3 million Ukrainians have fled the country, over 1.4 million of them through Poland. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Thursday that about 100,000 people have fled over the last two days through evacuation corridors. 

Zelenskyy worries Russia could use chemical or bioweapons in Ukraine 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied Russia’s accusation that Ukraine is preparing to attack with chemical or biological weapons, and he said the accusation itself was a bad sign.

“That worries me very much because we have often been convinced that if you want to know Russia’s plans, they are what Russia accuses others of,” he said in his nightly address to the nation.

Russia said it uncovered plans to create secret laboratories in Ukraine to produce biological weapons.

“I am a reasonable person. The president of a reasonable country and reasonable people. I am the father of two children,” Zelenskyy said. “And no chemical or any other weapon of mass destruction has been developed on my land. The whole world knows this.”

His comments came as the U.S. and other Western leaders expressed similar concerns that Russia was hinting as its possible next move in using such weapons in the war in Ukraine. 

Jewish orphanage evacuates 300 children in Ukraine 

On a night two weeks ago in southwest Ukraine, children inside a Jewish orphanage felt the ground shake and watched lights eerily flicker. Bombs were falling just a mile from their home, shattering their safe world and sending them fleeing into the darkness. 

The children, most in their pajamas and without shoes, rushed out of the orphanage and squeezed onto buses to make their way to the Moldova border as the Russian military launched its invasion of Ukraine. 

The journey, which eventually took the children to Romania, left them in tears and confusion: Where would they call home now? Read more.

— Gabriela Miranda

State Department vows to hold Russians responsible for war crimes

The United States has seen “very credible reports” of deliberate attacks by Russians on Ukrainian civilians that would qualify as a war crime under international law, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday.

That could include the recent assault on the maternity and children’s hospital complex that killed 3 people as well as strikes on schools, residential buildings, public buses and ambulances, he said.

Price said the U.S. will do everything possible to hold accountable every Russian political leader, military commander, and service member who participates in a war crime. “Criminal prosecutions are one possibility,” he added.

The U.S. has the ability to conduct its own in-depth investigations and will support the appropriate international investigations, Price said.

 — Maureen Groppe

What to know about Brittney Griner, WNBA star detained in Russia

News broke last week that WNBA star Brittney Griner had been detained by Russian authorities and was facing drug-smuggling charges.

Like many WNBA stars, Griner has played overseas in the offseason to earn as much as four times the salary she gets playing for the Phoenix Mercury. She was returning to her team in Russia, UMMC Ekaterinburg, when she was allegedly found with vape cartridges in her carry-on luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The Russian Customs Service said the cartridges contained oil derived from cannabis, which could lead to a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Friends, family and U.S. officials are trying to get Griner out of Russia, but diplomatic relations between the countries are said to be nearly non-existent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is unknown if Griner’s stature as a well-known international sports figure from the U.S. will help or hurt her situation. Read more.

— Jenna Ortiz, Dana Scott, and Emily Horos, Arizona Republic

Contributing: The Associated Press