In the weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, it held joint military drills with its neighbor and ally Belarus, massing tens of thousands of soldiers along the Ukrainian border even as the two countries’ leaders denied reports that the Kremlin was planning to go to war.
On Saturday, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia met President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus in St. Petersburg, promising weapons capable of holding nuclear warheads which Mr. Lukashenko — dubbed “Europe’s last dictator” — said would make his country “ready for anything.”
Mr. Putin promised to deliver the Iskander-M systems, which have a range of about 300 miles and can carry both conventional and nuclear warheads, “within months,” and also vowed to upgrade Belarusian Su-25 fighter jets, after Mr. Lukashenko asked the Russian leader to make its warplanes capable of carrying nuclear weapons.
“We need to be ready for anything, even the use of serious weaponry to defend our fatherland from Brest to Vladivostok,” Mr. Lukashenko said, referring to Belarus’ westernmost city and Russia’s port in the Far East.
While the men met, the Belarusian Armed Forces were once again holding “mobilization” drills in the area bordering Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, threatening to aggravate tensions in an already volatile region and prompting Ukraine to put its border guards on high alert.
“Units are being brought to higher levels of combat readiness, practical measures are being taken to accept conscripts, weapons and military equipment are being removed from storage,” a spokesman for the Ukrainian military’s operational command said in a statement this month.
Ukrainian officials and Western observers think it is highly unlikely that Belarus, a former Soviet republic of 9.4 million people, will directly join the war at this time, given the risks of provoking social unrest at home and undermining Mr. Lukashenko’s grip on power. Morale among Belarusian troops has also been shaky, according to Pavel P. Latushko, a former senior Belarusian official who fled the country.
Nevertheless, analysts believe Mr. Lukashenko, an autocrat beholden to the Kremlin, is desperately trying to show his value to Mr. Putin. He has proved a dependable friend ever since Mr. Putin bolstered his security forces to help him put down mass protests that followed an implausible landslide victory in a contested presidential election in 2020.
The former director of a Soviet collective pig farm, Mr. Lukashenko has secured his hold on Belarus over nearly three decades by maneuvering adroitly between East and West, playing each side against the other. But in the aftermath of last year’s uprising against him, he has become increasingly dependent on the Kremlin and docile to Mr. Putin.
Some analysts believe it is only a matter of time before pressure from Mr. Putin forces Mr. Lukashenko to take more direct action in the war, pushing him into an existential dilemma. Joining the conflict could undermine his support at home, but if he does not do Mr. Putin’s bidding, the Russian leader could retaliate by taking steps to force him from office.
In the early stages of the war, Belarus allowed Mr. Putin to use its territory for Russian troops to stage a shock-and-awe operation to try to capture Kyiv. The plan failed spectacularly, but with Russia now bogged down in a grinding war of attrition in Ukraine’s east, Moscow would benefit from any help Mr. Lukashenko could provide.
Mr. Lukashenko has proved himself a pliant friend. He has used Belarus’s 600-mile border with Ukraine to help place wooden “dummy tanks” in the woods, creating the illusion of impending danger; to replenish Russia’s arsenal; and to allow Moscow to stage missile strikes from within Belarusian territory.
As part of this weekend’s drills, the Belarusian army has dispatched 3,500 to 4,000 military personnel near the border, according to Oleksandr Motuzyanyk, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Defense Ministry. The entire Belarusian army has about 60,000 troops, he said, although Mr. Lukashenko wants to add another 20,000.
The Belarusian Defense Ministry said its special operation forces would participate in the drills, which will take place in the country’s southeastern Gomel region, whose border is just 65 miles from Kyiv.
While Mr. Lukashenko has made it clear that his loyalties now rest firmly with Mr. Putin, he remains a mercurial leader, known for sometimes unpredictable behavior. Among other things, he has touted ice hockey, vodka, saunas and tractor-driving as remedies for Covid; sent a fighter jet to intercept a European airliner carrying a prominent dissident; and made his generals salute his teenage son.
LONDON — The Russian blockade that has stopped Ukraine from exporting its vast storehouses of grain and other goods, threatening starvation in distant corners of the globe, is a “war crime,” the European Union’s top foreign policy official declared Monday.
The remarks by the official, Josep Borrell Fontelles, were among the strongest language from a Western leader in describing the Kremlin’s tactics to subjugate Ukraine nearly four months after it invaded, and with no end to the conflict in sight.
Before Russian forces began pounding Ukraine in February, it was a major exporter of grain, cooking oil and fertilizer. But the Black Sea blockade — along with Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian farmland and its destruction of agricultural infrastructure — has brought exports to a near standstill. The latest blow came Monday, when, Ukrainian regional authorities said, a Russian missile razed a food warehouse in Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest Black Sea port.
arriving in Luxembourg for a meeting of E.U. foreign ministers. “Millions of tons of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world, people are suffering hunger. This is a real war crime, so I cannot imagine that this will last much longer.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine made the same point in a remote address to the African Union on Monday. Moscow has deep ties to many African countries, which have been reluctant to criticize the invasion.
similar announcement on Sunday by Germany, Europe’s biggest economy. Denmark said it was also activating a plan to deal with looming shortages of gas that had been supplied by Russia.
The developments came as Russia, far from feeling the pain of lost fuel sales, found a savior in China, which reported on Monday that it was now the biggest buyer of Russian oil.
considering a suspension of fuel taxes to ease the strain on consumers.
NBC News, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said that the two Americans, Alex Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were “soldiers of fortune” who had been engaged in shelling and firing on Russian forces and should be “held responsible for the crimes they have committed.”
The sanctions imposed on Russia also played a role on Monday in an escalating confrontation with Lithuania, a member of both the European Union and NATO.
The Russian authorities threatened Lithuania with retaliation if the Baltic country did not swiftly reverse its ban on the transportation of some goods to Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland. Citing instructions from the European Union, Lithuania’s railway on Friday said it was halting the movement of goods from Russia that have been sanctioned by the European bloc.
Mr. Peskov told reporters the situation was “more than serious.” He called the new restrictions “an element of a blockade” of the region and a “violation of everything.”
small town of Toshkivka in Luhansk Province, part of the eastern region known as Donbas. That is where Russian forces have concentrated much of their military power as part of a plan to seize the region after having failed to occupy other parts of the country, including Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, the second-largest city, in northern Ukraine.
Reports over the weekend suggested that Russian forces had broken through the Ukrainian front line in Toshkivka, about 12 miles southeast of the metropolitan area of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Those are the last major cities in Luhansk not to have fallen into Russian hands. As of Monday, it remained unclear whether Russia had made any further advance there.
But Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had intensified shelling in and around Kharkiv, weeks after the Ukrainians had pushed them back, suggesting that Moscow still had territorial ambitions beyond Donbas.
“We de-occupied this region,” Mr. Zelensky said in an address to a conference of international policy experts in Italy. “And they want to do it again.”
Matthew Mpoke Bigg reported from London, Andrew Higgins from Warsaw, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Druzhkivka, Ukraine, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Valerie Hopkins and Oleksandr Chubko from Kyiv; Dan Bilefsky from Montreal; Monika Pronczuk from Brussels; Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong; Stanley Reed from London; and Zach Montague from Rehoboth Beach, Del.
POKROVSK, Ukraine — Russia’s nearly three-month-old invasion of neighboring Ukraine has been punctuated by flawed planning, poor intelligence, barbarity and wanton destruction. But obscured in the daily fighting is the geographic reality that Russia has made gains on the ground.
The Russian Defense Ministry said Tuesday that its forces in eastern Ukraine had advanced to the border between Donetsk and Luhansk, the two Russian-speaking provinces where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine’s army for eight years.
The ministry’s assertion, if confirmed, strengthens the prospect that Russia could soon gain complete control over the region, known as the Donbas, compared with just a third of it before the Feb. 24 invasion.
That is a far cry from what appeared to be the grand ambitions of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia when he launched the invasion: quick and easy seizure of vast swaths of Ukraine, including the capital, Kyiv, the overthrow of a hostile government and a replacement with unquestioned fealty that would ensure Ukraine’s subservience.
Nonetheless, the Donbas seizure, combined with the Russian invasion’s early success in seizing parts of southern Ukraine adjoining the Crimean peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, gives the Kremlin enormous leverage in any future negotiation to halt the conflict.
And the Russians enjoy the added advantage of naval dominance in the Black Sea, the only maritime route for Ukrainian trade, which they have paralyzed with an embargo that could eventually starve Ukraine economically and is already contributing to a global grain shortage.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday, Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, warned of a “prolonged conflict” in Ukraine as Russia seeks expansive territorial gains beyond the Donbas region, including the creation of a land bridge across Ukraine’s Black Sea coast.
But Ms. Haines cautioned that Mr. Putin would struggle to achieve those gains without a large-scale mobilization or draft, which he appears reluctant to order for now. As Mr. Putin’s territorial ambitions conflict with the limited capabilities of his military, Ms. Haines said that the war could enter “a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory” over the next few months, increasing the likelihood of Mr. Putin issuing direct threats to use nuclear weapons.
For the last several weeks, Ukrainian and Russian troops have been engaged in a grueling attrition, often fighting fiercely over small areas, as one village falls into Russian hands on one day only to be retaken by the Ukrainians a few days later.
The Ukrainians are increasingly dependent on an infusion of Western military and humanitarian aid, much of it from the United States, where the House voted Tuesday evening to approve a nearly $40 billion emergency package.
“The Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate here,” said Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, the director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, who testified alongside Ms. Haines.
Still, Russia has all but achieved one of its primary objectives: seizing a land bridge connecting Russian territory to the Crimean peninsula.
When Mr. Putin ordered the invasion, some of his military’s most skilled fighters poured out of Crimea and southern Russia, quickly seizing a ribbon of Ukrainian territory along the Sea of Azov. The last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in this area, at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, has been whittled to a few hundred hungry troops now confined mostly to bunkers.
But efforts by Russian forces to expand and fortify the land bridge have been complicated by Ukrainian forces deployed along an east-west front that undulates through sprawling fields of wheat and occasionally engulfs villages and towns.
Though Russian artillery and rockets have wreaked havoc in residential areas, flattening houses and terrorizing locals, the Russian military has not committed enough forces to move the line significantly or threaten the major industrial hub of Zaporizhzhia, the largest city near the frontline, Col. Oleg Goncharuk, the commander of the 128th Separate Mountain Assault Brigade, said in an interview last month.
“They will try to block our forces from moving forward and they are trying to solidify their positions,” said Colonel Goncharuk, whose forces are arrayed along the southeast front. “But we don’t know their orders or what their ambitions are.”
It is in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk where fighting is the fiercest.
At the main hospital in Kramatorsk, a city in Donetsk, ambulances stream in day and night, carrying soldiers wounded at the front, who describe being pinned down by near constant shelling.
About 80 percent of the patients are wounded by explosives such as mines and artillery shells, said Capt. Eduard Antonovskyy, the deputy commander of the medical unit at the hospital. Because of this, he said, very few patients have serious injuries. Either you’re far enough from an explosion to survive or you aren’t, he said.
“We either get moderate injuries or deaths,” Captain Antonovskyy said.
Russian forces now control about 80 percent of Donbas, according to Ukrainian officials, and have concentrated their efforts on a pocket of Ukrainian-held territory with Kramatorsk at its center.
All around the city, the booms of distant fighting can be heard at all hours and heavy smoke hangs like a morning fog. Almost daily, Russian forces launch rocket attacks and airstrikes on the city itself, but the most punishing violence is reserved for those places in range of Russian artillery.
About 62 miles northeast of Kramatorsk is Severodonetsk, where Russian artillery, parked about five or six miles outside the city, rarely relents, making it difficult for the 15,000 or so residents who remain to venture above ground.
Oleg Grigorov, the police chief in the Luhansk region, compared the violence to the Battle of Stalingrad in World War II, when Soviet forces turned the tide against the Nazis, but only after having suffered tremendous losses.
“It never ends. At all,” Mr. Grigorov said. “Whole neighborhoods are destroyed. For days, for weeks, they have been shelling. They are intentionally annihilating our infrastructure and the civilian population.”
Mr. Grigorov said about 200 of his officers remained in the city, which has lost electricity and water. Their primary task is delivering food to people sheltering in their basements and burying the dead.
Russia’s Black Sea blockade of Ukraine has not diminished the Kremlin’s desire to gain control of Odesa, the most important Ukrainian port, which has been subjected to several aerial attacks. In the latest, Russian forces fired seven missiles, striking a shopping mall and a consumer goods warehouse and killing at least one person and wounding several more, Ukrainian officials said.
The strike came only hours after the European Council president, Charles Michel, had visited Odesa, where he was forced to take cover in a bomb shelter because of another attack.
Mr. Michel, who met with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal of Ukraine, criticized Russia for strangling Ukrainian grain exports that feed people around the world.
“I saw silos full of grain, wheat and corn ready for export,” Mr. Michel said in a statement. “This badly needed food is stranded because of the Russian war and blockade of Black Sea ports, causing dramatic consequences for vulnerable countries.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine urged the international community to pressure Russia to lift the blockade.
“For the first time in decades there is no usual movement of the merchant fleet, no usual port functioning in Odesa,” he said in an overnight address. “Probably, this has never happened in Odesa since World War II.”
Ukraine’s economy is expected to shrink 30 percent this year, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development said on Tuesday, worsening its forecast from just two months ago, when it predicted a 20 percent shrinkage.
The war has “put Ukraine’s economy under enormous stress, with the heavy devastation of infrastructure and production capacities,” the bank said in an economic update.
It estimated that 30 percent to 50 percent of Ukrainian businesses have shut down, 10 percent of the population has fled the country and a further 15 percent is displaced internally.
The bank also forecast that Russia’s economy would shrink by 10 percent this year and stagnate next year, with a bleak outlook unless a peace agreement leads to the relaxing of Western sanctions.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Pokrovsk, Ukraine, Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland, and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Julian E. Barnes and Emily Cochrane from Washington, and Eshe Nelson and Cora Engelbrecht from London.
WASHINGTON — President Biden signaled a vast increase in America’s commitment to defeating Russia in Ukraine on Thursday as he asked Congress to authorize $33 billion for more artillery, antitank weapons and other hardware as well as economic and humanitarian aid.
The request represented an extraordinary escalation in American investment in the war, more than tripling the total emergency expenditures and putting the United States on track to spend as much this year helping the Ukrainians as it did on average each year fighting its own war in Afghanistan, or more.
“The cost of this fight is not cheap,” Mr. Biden said at the White House. “But caving to aggression is going to be more costly if we allow it to happen. We either back the Ukrainian people as they defend their country or we stand by as the Russians continue their atrocities and aggression in Ukraine.”
Mr. Biden also sent Congress a plan to increase the government’s power to seize luxury yachts, aircraft, bank accounts and other assets of Russian oligarchs tied to President Vladimir V. Putin and use the proceeds to help the Ukrainians. Just hours later, Congress passed legislation allowing Mr. Biden to use a World War II-era law to supply weapons to Ukraine on loan quickly.
The latest American pledge came as Moscow raised the prospect of a widening conflict with the West. Russian officials accused the United States and Poland of working together on a covert plan to establish control over western Ukraine and asserted that the West was encouraging Ukraine to launch strikes inside Russia, where gas depots and a missile factory have burned or been attacked in recent days.
A Russian missile strike setting off a fiery explosion in central Kyiv shattered weeks of calm in the capital and served as a vivid reminder that the violence in Ukraine has not shifted exclusively to the eastern and southern portions of the country, where Russia is now focusing its efforts to seize and control territory. Russian forces are making “slow and uneven” progress in that part of Ukraine but are struggling to overcome the same supply line problems that hampered their initial offensive, the Pentagon said.
The strike came on the same day that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine was meeting with António Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, just a few miles away in Kyiv, a visit that was no secret in Moscow. Mr. Guterres arrived in Ukraine, after sitting down with Mr. Putin in Moscow, in hopes of securing evacuation routes for besieged Ukrainian civilians and support for the prosecution of war crimes.
In the hours before the latest strike, Mr. Guterres toured the stunning wreckage in Borodianka, Bucha and Irpin, three suburbs of Kyiv that have borne the heavy cost of the fighting. Standing in front of a row of scorched buildings where dozens of people were killed, he called Russia’s invasion “an absurdity” and said, “There is no way a war can be acceptable in the 21st century.”
In his nightly address, Mr. Zelensky condemned the strike, saying it revealed Russia’s “true attitude to global institutions” and was an effort to “humiliate the U.N.” He vowed a “strong response” to that and other Russian attacks. “We still have to drive the occupiers out,” he said.
Just as the United States was ramping up its flow of arms to the battlefield, the German Parliament voted overwhelmingly to deliver heavy weapons to Ukraine, a largely symbolic move to show unity after the government announced the plan earlier this week.
A day after Russia cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said his country must be prepared for the possibility that Germany could be next. “We have to be ready for it,” Mr. Scholz told reporters in Tokyo, where he paid Prime Minister Fumio Kishida of Japan a visit to shore up ties between the two countries.
Russian strikes and Ukrainian counterattacks continued to batter eastern and southern battlegrounds in Ukraine, but Russian troops are advancing cautiously in this latest phase, able to sustain only several kilometers of progress each day, according to a Pentagon official speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss operational details.
Despite having much shorter supply lines now than they did during the war’s first several weeks in Ukraine’s north, the Russians have not overcome their logistics problem, the Pentagon official said, citing slow shipments of food, fuel, weapons and ammunition.
Moscow now has 92 battalion groups fighting in eastern and southern Ukraine — up from 85 a week ago, but still well below the 125 it had in the first phase of the war, the official said. Each battalion group has about 700 to 1,000 troops.
Russia has amassed artillery to support its troops near the city of Izium, according to the latest assessment by the Institute for the Study of War, a research group. Russian forces have used the city as a strategic staging point for their assault in the east and probably seek to outflank Ukrainian defensive positions, the analysts said.
Since Wednesday, Russian troops have captured several villages west of the city, according to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry, with the likely aim of bypassing Ukrainian forces on two parallel roads running south, toward the cities of Barvinkove and Sloviansk.
A senior American diplomat accused Russia of engaging in systematic campaigns to topple local governments in occupied Ukraine and to detain and torture local officials, journalists and activists in so-called “filtration camps,” where some of them have reportedly disappeared.
The diplomat, Michael R. Carpenter, the American ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, said the United States has information that Russia is dissolving democratically elected local governments and has forced large numbers of civilians in occupied areas into camps for questioning.
The Ukrainian military said it was moving more troops to the border with Transnistria, a small breakaway region in Moldova, on Ukraine’s southwest flank, hundreds of miles from the fighting on the eastern front.
Ukraine ordered the reinforcements after it accused Russia this week of orchestrating a series of explosions in Transnistria, potentially as a pretext to attack Ukraine from the south and move on Odesa, Ukraine’s major Black Sea port. Russia has thousands of troops in Transnistria, which is controlled by Kremlin-backed separatists.
Russia sought to turn the tables by accusing Ukraine and its allies of being the ones to widen the war, citing the supposed secret Polish-American plan to control western Ukraine and the recent attacks on targets inside Russia. Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s spokeswoman, urged Kyiv and Western capitals to take seriously Russia’s statements “that further calls on Ukraine to strike Russian facilities would definitely lead to a tough response from Russia.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said Ukraine had a right to strike Russian military facilities and “will defend itself in any way.” Britain’s defense minister, Ben Wallace, also said Ukraine would be justified in using Western arms to attack military targets inside Russia, as he warned that the war could turn into a “slow-moving, frozen occupation, like a sort of cancerous growth in Ukraine.”
Speaking at the White House, Mr. Biden rejected Russian suggestions that the United States was waging a proxy war against Moscow. “It shows the desperation that Russia is feeling about their abject failure in being able to do what they set out to do in the first instance,” Mr. Biden said.
He likewise condemned Russian officials’ raising the specter of nuclear war. “No one should be making idle comments about the use of nuclear weapons or the possibility that they could use that,” Mr. Biden said. “It’s irresponsible.”
The massive aid package Mr. Biden unveiled on Thursday would eclipse all the spending by the United States so far on the war. There is widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for more aid, but it remained uncertain whether the issue could get tied up in negotiations over ancillary issues like pandemic relief or immigration.
The request, more than twice the size of the $13.6 billion package lawmakers approved and Mr. Biden signed last month, was intended to last through the end of September, underscoring the expectations of a prolonged conflict.
It includes more than $20 billion for security and military assistance, including $11.4 billion to fund equipment and replenish stocks already provided to Ukraine, $2.6 billion to support the deployment of American troops and equipment to the region to safeguard NATO allies and $1.9 billion for cybersecurity and intelligence support.
The request also includes $8.5 billion in economic assistance for the government in Kyiv to provide basic economic support, including food and health care services, as the Ukrainian economy reels from the toll of the war. An additional $3 billion would be provided for humanitarian assistance and food security funding, including medical supplies and support for Ukrainian refugees and to help stem the impact of the disrupted food supply chain.
When combined with the previous emergency measure, the United States would be authorizing $46.6 billion for the Ukraine war, which represents more than two-thirds of Russia’s entire annual defense budget of $65.9 billion. Mr. Biden said he expected European allies to contribute more as well.
By comparison, the Pentagon last year estimated that the total war-fighting costs in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 at $816 billion, or about $40.8 billion a year. (That did not count non-Defense Department expenditures, and private studies have put the total cost higher.)
Without waiting for the latest aid plan, Congress moved on Thursday to make it easier for Mr. Biden to funnel more arms to Ukraine right away. The House voted 417 to 10 to invoke the Lend-Lease Act of 1941 to authorize Mr. Biden to speed military supplies to Ukraine. The Senate passed the legislation unanimously earlier this month, meaning it now moves to Mr. Biden’s desk for his signature.
The original act, proposed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, authorized the president to lease or lend military equipment to any foreign government “whose defense the president deems vital to the defense of the United States” and was used originally to aid Britain and later the Soviet Union in their battle against Nazi Germany.
“Passage of that act enabled Great Britain and Winston Churchill to keep fighting and to survive the fascist Nazi bombardment until the United States could enter the war,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland. “President Zelensky has said that Ukraine needs weapons to sustain themselves, and President Biden has answered that call.”
The legislation targeting oligarchs would streamline ongoing efforts to find and confiscate bank accounts, property and other assets from the Russian moguls.
Among other things, it would create a new criminal offense for possessing proceeds from corrupt dealings with the Russian government. It would also add the crime of evading sanctions to the definition of “racketeering activity” in the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, known as RICO.
Reporting was contributed by Marc Santora from Krakow, Poland; Jeffrey Gettleman and Maria Varenikova from Kyiv, Ukraine; Emily Cochrane, Catie Edmondson, Eric Schmitt and Michael D. Shear from Washington; Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia; Shashank Bengali and Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London; and Farnaz Fassihi from New York.
With a pointed warning to Ukraine’s Western allies, Russia test-launched a new intercontinental missile on Wednesday, even as it unleashed a hail of bombs, artillery and missiles inside Ukraine in a drive to weaken Ukrainian defenses for a major ground offensive in the east.
The intensifying barrage, aimed at more than 1,100 targets, came as the Russian military made probing attacks along a 300-mile front line winding through Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region, which the Kremlin has said will be the focus of the next phase of its war, and continued to build up and prepare a massive force there.
The new Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile “will force all who are trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice,” President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said in televised remarks, a clear reference to the United States and other nations that have aided Ukraine in the face of Russia’s eight-week-old invasion.
It is not yet clear if the missile, which Russia’s Defense Ministry said could carry multiple nuclear warheads and outwit defenses anywhere in the world, actually possess game-changing capabilities. The ministry also acknowledged the missile is not yet ready for active deployment, and the United States said it had not been surprised by the launch.
But the test-firing and Mr. Putin’s comments fit neatly into a relentless Kremlin propaganda campaign — the only information many of his people ever see — presenting Russians not as aggressors but as victims of Western persecution, yet still powerful and unbowed.
In a televised appearance with a group of school children at the Kremlin, Mr. Putin repeated his lie that Ukraine was committing genocide against Russian speakers in Donbas, which had “forced, simply compelled Russia to start this military operation.”
The rising death and destruction in Donbas, along with a critical scarcity of basic supplies and services, have been driving an exodus of staggering proportions in Ukraine, a country with a prewar population estimated at 43 million. The United Nations said the number of people who have left the country reached 5 million, in addition to more than 7 million who have fled or been forced from their homes but remain within Ukraine.
Russia rejected calls by the United Nations and others for a humanitarian cease-fire to allow civilians to evacuate safely and supplies to reach those who remain. At a U.N. Security Council meeting on Tuesday night, the Russian deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, said such pleas were “insincere, and in practice they merely point to an aspiration to provide Kyiv nationalists breathing room to regroup and receive more drones, more antitank missiles” and antiaircraft missiles.
In Finland, lawmakers began debating whether to join NATO — the latest example of the war backfiring against Russia’s goals. Mr. Putin sought to prevent Ukraine from ever joining the alliance, eliminate the country’s military and political independence, and sow divisions within NATO.
Instead, Finland and Sweden are edging toward abandoning their longstanding nonalignment, seeking NATO’s protection from an aggressive Russia. NATO is ramping up military spending and is more united than it has been in years, and Ukraine’s military has put up a surprisingly tough fight against the larger but often disorganized and demoralized invading force.
The Ukraine invasion also has left Russia ostracized financially and economically — punctuated Wednesday at a Group of 20 finance ministers meeting. Several participants, including Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Ukraine’s finance minister, Serhiy Marchenko, abruptly left in protest when Russia’s finance minister, Anton Siluanov, started to speak.
The United States and other NATO countries have funneled enormous quantities of arms to Ukraine, and increasingly those shipments include heavier, more sophisticated and longer-range weapons — large-caliber artillery, armored vehicles, antiaircraft missiles and spare parts for damaged aircraft — drawing ominous warnings from the Kremlin.
Even Germany has reversed a long-held prohibition on sending arms to a conflict zone and has beefed up its own military spending, but calls to go farther still and ship tanks to Ukraine have divided the government in Berlin.
Russia has falsely insisted since the invasion began on Feb. 24 that it was striking only military targets, but countless shattered, burned-out and flattened apartment blocks, stores, offices, houses and cars attest otherwise. In the Donbas town of Avdiivka, near the front lines, where Russian bombardment has caused a number of civilian deaths and injuries, and driven many of those who remain underground, just this week airstrikes destroyed a supermarket and an athletics store in the heart of town.
The extended shelling and bombing before sending large ground forces into battle reflect a change in Russian strategy from the early part of the war, when it tried and failed to seize major cities and other locations quickly.
A Russian ground offensive backed by air, land and sea bombardment continues to lay waste to the southeastern port of Mariupol, now a scene of destruction and casualties on a scale all but unknown in Europe since World War II. Ukrainian officials said 20,000 people there had been killed — a figure impossible to verify, with access to the world cut off and many bodies still uncollected — and about 120,000 of the city’s prewar population of more than 430,000 remain trapped in the ruins, with little access to food, water, power or heat.
Ukrainian officials said early on Wednesday that they had reached an agreement with Russian forces to allow children, women and the elderly to safely leave Mariupol, only to say later that the evacuation deal had fallen apart, like so many before it. “Due to the lack of control over their own military at the place, the occupiers were unable to ensure a proper cease-fire,” said Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister.
Soldiers and civilians were holding out in a warren of underground bunkers beneath the sprawling Azovstal steel mill complex in the city, defying ultimatums to surrender, while Russian fire concentrated on that site.
“We are probably facing our last days, if not hours,” Serhiy Volyna, a commander from the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, said in a video on Facebook from the plant. “We appeal and plead to all world leaders to help us.”
He and other Ukrainians said that Russian forces had bombed a hospital at the Azovstal complex. “We are pulling people from the rubble,” Sviatoslav Palamar, another commander inside the steel mill, told Radio Liberty.
Azovstal employees say about 4,000 people took refuge beneath the mill early in the war, mostly plant workers and their family members, but many later left. Other civilians sought shelter inside the plant, fleeing the Russian advance and, according to Ukrainian officials, fearing capture and forced relocation to detention camps in Russia. For soldiers, Azovstal is the last redoubt in the city.
It is not clear how many people remain there. Mr. Volyna said that 500 of them were injured.
Russia has assembled 76 battalion tactical groups, each with as many as 1,000 soldiers, in southeastern Ukraine, up from 65 a few days ago, the Pentagon said, and about 22 more are just outside Ukraine, regrouping and gaining new equipment.
Military analysts say the flat landscape of Donbas — with fewer woods, hills and cities than the northern areas where Moscow’s forces were badly mauled — could favor the Russians.
The first-ever launch of Russia’s Sarmat missile made for the latest example of the Kremlin rattling its nuclear sabers in the face of hardened opposition from the United States and its allies. Earlier in the war, Mr. Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on a higher state of alert, and a top Russian official has spoken of placing nuclear weapons along the borders of the Baltic States.
American officials said those earlier steps had no apparent action behind their heated rhetoric, and required no response from the United States. They reacted similarly on Wednesday. The Pentagon and the White House both said Moscow had properly notified Washington in advance of the Sarmat test.
“Such testing is routine,” said John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman. “It was not a surprise.”
Like many I.C.B.M.s operated by Russia, the United States and other nuclear powers, the Sarmat is made to carry multiple nuclear warheads, each aimed at a different target, delivered by “independent re-entry vehicles” that the missile releases high above the atmosphere, along with decoys, to evade missile defense systems.
In addition, Russian officials have said that those re-entry vehicles could be “hypersonic glide vehicles,” able to maneuver en route to their targets, making them even harder to stop. The Sarmat was one of the next generation of weapons Mr. Putin announced in 2018, describing them as impossible to defend against, but Western analysts have questioned whether the glide vehicles and other new technology exists yet, or will any time soon.
The missile, launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northwestern Russia, struck a target on the Kamchatka Peninsula, 3,500 miles to the east, the Russian Defense Ministry said.
Anton Troianovski reported from Hamburg, Germany, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Michael Schwirtz from Avdiivka, Ukraine, Steven Erlanger from Brussels, Marc Santora and Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Poland, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tblisi, Georgia, Johanna Lemola from Helsinki, Victoria Kim from Seoul, Erika Solomon from Berlin, Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London, Jesus Jiménez from New York, and Katie Rogers and Alan Rappeport from Washington.
BRUSSELS — Russia’s faltering war against Ukraine suffered a pair of setbacks Thursday when the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet sank after a catastrophic explosion and fire, as the European Union moved closer to an embargo on Russian oil imports.
Ukraine claimed to have struck the vessel, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, with two of its own Neptune missiles, while Russia said the blast was caused by ammunition aboard the ship. If confirmed, the missile attack would be a serious blow to Russia, both militarily and symbolically — proof that its ships can no longer operate with impunity, and another damaging blow to morale.
It would also give a lift to Ukrainian hopes, while demonstrating the defenders’ homegrown technological capacity and exposing an embarrassing weakness in the Russian navy’s antimissile defenses.
Moscow also faces the possible loss of European markets in fossil fuels, which are providing billions of dollars a month to support its war effort. The European Union has long resisted calls to reduce its energy dependency on Russia, but officials revealed on Thursday that an oil embargo is in the works and is likely to be adopted in the coming weeks.
That comes on top of a previously announced ban on imports of Russian coal. Taken together, the steps are bound to raise fuel and electricity prices in Europe, potentially disrupting the economy and provoking a political backlash.
Ukraine continues to brace for a Russian offensive in the eastern Donbas region — where Moscow has said it will focus its war efforts after its failure to capture the capital, Kyiv — while Russian forces squeeze the shrinking pocket of resistance in the ruined southern port of Mariupol. The devastation rained there has offered a dire warning of what may befall other cities in the event of a prolonged Russian siege, prompting a mass exodus of civilians from the Donbas.
Its international isolation deepening, the Kremlin reacted ominously to the growing indications that Finland and Sweden would join the NATO alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Thursday, the government warned that any such expansion of NATO would prompt an increased Russian military presence, including nuclear weapons, in the region.
The C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, warned on Thursday of the possibility that Mr. Putin, facing a debacle in Ukraine, might use a tactical or low-yield nuclear weapon, though he stressed that he had seen no “practical evidence” that such a step was pending. It was the first time he discussed publicly a concern that has been much debated in the White House.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks that they’ve faced so far, militarily, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by a potential resort to tactical nuclear weapons or low-yield nuclear weapons,” Mr. Burns said, in answering questions after a speech in Atlanta.
Prominent voices in Russian state media have made increasingly incendiary statements recently, calling for more brutality in battles that have already sparked calls for war-crimes investigations of the Russian forces.
Much remained unclear about Russia’s setback in the western Black Sea, where a blast on Thursday morning — Wednesday night in the United States — and subsequent fire forced many of the Moskva’s roughly 500 crew members to abandon ship. There was no word on casualties. Ukraine said it had struck the vessel with two Neptune missiles and sunk it.
Russia’s Defense Ministry initially said its sailors had managed to put out the fire and the Moskva, commissioned in 1983, remained afloat. But hours later, it said, the ship sank while being towed to port in a storm.
Western defense officials said they could not be sure what caused the explosion aboard the 12,000-ton ship. Three American officials briefed on the incident said all indications were that it had been hit by missiles. The officials cautioned that early battlefield reports can sometimes change, but expressed deep skepticism over the Russian account of an accidental fire.
Ukraine has been stressing the need for coastal defense weapons, and the U.S. announced this week that it would send more of them. Pentagon officials said that other Russian ships had moved farther from the Ukrainian shoreline, lending credence to the claim of missile strikes.
“It’s going to have an impact on their naval capabilities, certainly in the near term,” but the long-term picture is unclear, said the Pentagon spokesman, John F. Kirby, a former Navy rear admiral.
Until now, Russian ships have been able to fire missiles at will against coastal cities. They have blockaded Ukraine’s south coast and threatened an amphibious landing in the southwestern region. The presence of an effective Ukrainian anti-ship weapon — Ukraine says the Neptune has a range of about 190 miles — could change those calculations, though Ukraine’s commercial shipping is unlikely to resume anytime soon.
Current and former American naval commanders said a successful missile attack would represent a shocking lack of Russian combat readiness.
“This is not supposed to happen to a modern warship,” said Adm. James G. Foggo III, a former commander of the United States Sixth Fleet, whose area of operations includes Europe. “If this was a Neptune missile strike, it’s indicative of complacency and lack of an effective integrated air and missile defense capability.”
Ukraine has endured most of the suffering in the war that began on Feb. 24, with untold thousands of casualties, widespread destruction and millions of people displaced, but the blowback on Russia has also been severe. Moscow’s vaunted military has often seemed hapless, absorbing unexpectedly heavy losses of men and equipment, while unprecedented sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies have shaken the Russian economy.
President Vladimir V. Putin acknowledged some of that cost on Thursday in a videoconference with top government officials and oil and gas executives, referring to “the disruption of export logistics” in that industry and “setbacks in payments for Russian energy exports.”
Fossil fuels are Russia’s biggest export product, a huge part of the Russian economy that employs millions of people and supplies the government with much of the revenue needed to support its war-making machinery.
Now E.U. officials and European diplomats say the bloc is moving toward barring oil imports from Russia, a ban that would be phased in over months to allow countries to arrange alternative supplies. They said European leaders will not make a final decision until after April 24, when France will hold its presidential runoff; a rise in fuel prices could hurt the prospects of President Emmanuel Macron and boost his right-wing opponent, Marine Le Pen, who has praised Mr. Putin.
The government of Germany, the most influential country in the European Union, has been particularly reluctant to cut off Russian fuel, which would come at a steep cost and could lead to shortages. But pressure from allies and mounting evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine have, step by step, overcome that resistance. Germany refused to allow the virtually completed, $10 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to go into service, supported the coal ban and now appears to be on board with an oil embargo.
The shifting stance of the neutral Scandinavian states is another unintended consequence for Mr. Putin. In waging a war that he said was intended to keep Ukraine out of NATO — a distant prospect at best — he may have succeeded in driving two countries that had been steadfastly nonaligned for generations into the arms of the alliance.
Dmitri A. Medvedev, a senior Russian security official, said on Thursday that if Sweden and Finland joined NATO, there would be “no more talk of a nuclear-free Baltics” region. Moscow would be compelled to “seriously strengthen” its air and ground forces in the area, said Mr. Medvedev, a former president and prime minister, and could deploy nuclear-armed warships “at arm’s length” from Finnish and Swedish shores.
Vladimir Solovyov, a television host who is considered a leading voice of Kremlin propaganda, said on Wednesday that Russia should destroy all Ukrainian infrastructure, including basic utilities.
Russia “must bring these terrorists to their senses in the cruelest way,” he said on his show on the state-owned Russia-1 channel. “We need to talk differently with terrorists,” he added. “There shouldn’t be any illusions that they can win.”
Russia has forced independent news outlets to shut down or leave the country, and has criminalized disputing the Kremlin’s account of the war. Yet Margarita Simonyan, the head of the state-owned RT news organization, said earlier this week that the government should restrict information even more.
No major power can exist “without having information under its control,” she said, adding, “we are all waiting for this.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko and Anton Troianovski from Istanbul, Michael Schwirtz from London, and Helene Cooper, Eric Schmitt David E. Sanger and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.
The images of dead Ukrainians, some with their hands tied and others haphazardly buried in pits, spurred shocked Western leaders on Monday to promise even tougher sanctions against Russia, including possibly on energy, as the Kremlin dug in and showed signs of preparing a new assault.
The growing evidence that Russian soldiers killed scores of civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha, leaving their bodies behind as they withdrew, prompted President Biden to call for President Vladimir V. Putin to face a “war crime trial.” Germany and France expelled a total of 75 Russian diplomats, and President Emmanuel Macron of France said the European Union should consider sanctions against Russian coal and oil.
“This guy is brutal,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Putin. “And what’s happening in Bucha is outrageous, and everyone’s seen it.”
In Moscow on Monday, Mr. Putin said nothing about his war in Ukraine, but his spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said the Kremlin “categorically” denied “any allegations” of Russian involvement in the atrocities. Instead, Russia’s state media aired relentless conspiracy theories about what it said was a Ukrainian fabrication, while the authorities threatened to prosecute anyone who publicly blamed Russians for the Bucha killings.
Russia said the bodies had been placed only recently on the streets after “all Russian units withdrew completely from Bucha” around March 30. But a review of videos and satellite imagery by The New York Times shows that many of the civilians were killed more than three weeks ago, when Russia’s military was in control of the town.
The war in Ukraine may now be headed for an even more dangerous phase, despite Russia’s withdrawal last week from areas near Kyiv.
Ukrainian and Western officials said that Russia appeared to be positioning troops for an intensified assault in the eastern Donbas area, where the port city of Mariupol remains under a brutal siege. And in Kharkiv, roughly 30 miles from the Russian border, unrelenting bombardment has left parts of the city of 1.4 million unrecognizable.
The systematic destruction produces little military gain, but is part of a broader strategy to seize the country’s east, analysts and U.S. military officials say.
With the Russian economy showing some signs of resilience after the initial shock of the wide-ranging Western sanctions put in place after Mr. Putin’s invasion in February, the Kremlin appeared to be girding for a continuation of the war, despite talk in European capitals of now possibly banning Russian coal, oil or, less likely, gas.
“They are not going to stop,” Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, said in a statement on Monday. “Putin’s order given to his soldiers to destroy our state has not disappeared.”
In a visit to Bucha on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine left the door open to a negotiated peace, despite the horrific scenes uncovered over the weekend. In a camouflage bulletproof vest, surrounded by soldiers and journalists, Mr. Zelensky accused Russia of “genocide,” but said he was still hoping to meet with Mr. Putin to try to stop the war.
“Ukraine must have peace,” Mr. Zelensky said. “We are in Europe in the 21st century. We will continue efforts diplomatically and militarily.”
Mr. Biden, speaking to reporters in Washington after returning from Delaware, said that “information” needed to be gathered for a trial of Mr. Putin, calling the Russian leader a “war criminal.” Mr. Biden said he would at some point be announcing more sanctions against Russia, without specifying what they would be.
In Europe, the growing evidence of Russian atrocities also appeared to be paving the way for more sanctions, even as divisions remained among E.U. members of whether to impose a broad ban on Russian energy imports.
“Today there are very clear signs of war crimes,” Mr. Macron, the French president, told France Inter radio. “Those who were responsible for those crimes will have to answer for them.”
European Union ambassadors will meet on Wednesday to discuss another package of sanctions against Russia, but the extent of the new measures is still very much in flux, diplomats and officials said. A meeting of NATO defense ministers is also scheduled to take place that day.
Since the start of the conflict, European leaders, along with the United States, have pursued a strategy of putting sanctions in place a piece at a time, gradually toughening them to leave themselves more cards to play in case Russia escalates the conflict.
But the outrage over the new revelations of atrocities may force their hand.
One version of a new E.U. sanctions package under consideration could include a ban on Russian coal, but not oil and gas, E.U. officials said. Bans on Russian goods entering E.U. ports are also under consideration, as well as smaller measures to close loopholes in existing sanctions, European diplomats and officials said.
While Mr. Macron said the new sanctions should target both coal and oil, Christian Lindner, the German finance minister, indicated that coal would be the only Russian energy export included in the sanctions package. The European Union, he said, needed to “differentiate between oil, coal and gas.”
Coal, which is largely mined by private companies in Russia, is less critical to the Kremlin’s coffers than the oil and gas industry, in which state-owned companies play the leading role.
Germany is the key country holding the bloc back from an outright ban on oil and gas, though the idea is also unpopular in other, smaller European nations that largely rely on Russian supplies. Berlin has consistently argued that sanctions against Russia ought to hurt Russia more than they hurt Europe.
Germany’s hesitation to endorse oil and gas sanctions was on display Sunday, when cracks appeared in the coalition government’s position on such a move.
Christine Lambrecht, the defense minister, said the bloc should consider banning gas imports, while the economy and energy minister, Robert Habeck said such a move would not be useful because Mr. Putin has “already practically lost the war.”
“The horrifying news from Bucha will certainly pile more pressure on the E.U. to impose energy sanctions on Moscow this Wednesday, but hard-hitting import bans on oil and gas remain unlikely for now,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at Eurasia Group, a consultancy.
“Internal momentum is building over stopping Russian coal,” Mr. Rahman said, “If anything, that’s likely to be the first thing Brussels targets on the energy side.”
Mr. Rahman said that, for now, the economic and political costs of a sudden stop of Russian oil and gas imports were too high for most E.U. leaders. He said it could take Russia using chemical, biological or nuclear weapons in Ukraine to lead the E.U. to impose sanctions on oil and gas imports.
Still, the Bucha revelations did prompt Germany and France — two countries that have long been careful to avoid provoking Russia — to escalate the confrontation with Moscow.
Germany said it would expel 40 Russian diplomats, an unusually high number for a single round of expulsions that Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said was necessitated by the “incredible brutality on the part of the Russian leadership and those who follow its propaganda.”
France said it, too, would expel “many” Russian diplomats stationed in the country; a Foreign Ministry official put the number at 35.
And Lithuania expelled the Russian ambassador and recalled its own from Moscow, the first time that a European country has made such a move since the start of the war.
Russia promised to retaliate against the expulsions and dismissed the reports of the atrocities in Bucha, describing them as fabricated pretexts for more sanctions. State television even claimed that Western operatives had chosen Bucha for their “provocation” because the town’s name sounded like the English word “butcher.”
It was the latest instance in which the Kremlin’s media machine has tried to parry overwhelming evidence of Russian involvement in an atrocity with a flood of conspiracy theories sowing confusion among casual consumers of the news.
It appeared likely that, inside Russia, the approach would work. The Kremlin narrative is increasingly the only one being heard by regular Russians, with independent news media shut down, access to Facebook and Instagram blocked, and a new censorship law punishing any deviation from that narrative with as much as 15 years in prison.
Driving the point home, the Russian general prosecutor’s office issued a statement on Monday indicating that anyone referring to the Bucha atrocities as Russia’s doing risked prosecution.
Anton Troianovski reported from Istanbul, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff from Brussels. Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Nefffrom Kharkiv; Megan Specia from Krakow, Poland; Constant Méheut and Aurelien Breeden from Paris; Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin; and Katie Rogers from Washington.
WARSAW — President Biden delivered a forceful denunciation of Vladimir V. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine on Saturday, declaring “for God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power,” as he cast the war as the latest front in a decades-long battle between the forces of democracy and oppression.
Ending a three-day diplomatic trip to Europe with a fiery speech outside a centuries-old castle in Warsaw, Mr. Biden described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the “test of all time” in a post-World War II struggle between democracy and autocracy, “between liberty and repression, between a rules-based order and one governed by brute force.”
“In this battle, we need to be cleareyed,” Mr. Biden said in front of a crowd waving Polish, Ukrainian and American flags. “This battle will not be won in days or months, either. We need to steel ourselves for the long fight ahead.”
Mr. Biden used the speech to bolster a key NATO ally on Ukraine’s western border that has served as a conduit for Western arms and has absorbed more than 2 million refugees fleeing the violence, more than any other country in Europe. And he sought to prepare the public, at home and abroad, for a grinding conflict that could drag on for weeks, months or longer.
Just hours before the event, missiles struck the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, about 50 miles from the Polish border, extending Russia’s monthlong assault on major cities and civilian populations — and undercutting Russian statements a day earlier suggesting Moscow might be scaling back its goals in the war.
While declaring that “the Russian people are not our enemy,” Mr. Biden unleashed an angry tirade against Mr. Putin’s claim that the invasion of Ukraine is intended to “de-Nazify” the country. Mr. Biden called that justification “a lie,” noting that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is Jewish and that his father’s family was killed in the Holocaust.
“It’s just cynical,” Mr. Biden said. “He knows that. And it’s also obscene.”
It was not immediately clear whether Mr. Biden’s apparent call for the ouster of Mr. Putin was one of the off-the-cuff remarks for which he is known or a calculated jab, one of many in the speech. But it risks confirming Russia’s central propaganda claim that the West, and particularly the United States, is determined to destroy Russia.
The White House immediately sought to play down the remark. “The president’s point was that Putin cannot be allowed to exercise power over his neighbors or the region,” a White House official told reporters. “He was not discussing Putin’s power in Russia, or regime change.”
Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Mr. Putin’s fate was not in the hands of the American president. “It’s not for Biden to decide,” Mr. Peskov told reporters. “The president of Russia is elected by the Russians.”
Experts were divided on whether Mr. Biden’s remark was intended to signal he believed Mr. Putin should be ousted, a political escalation that could have consequences on the battlefield.
Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said in a tweet that the White House’s attempt to walk back the president’s comment was “unlikely to wash.”
“Putin will see it as confirmation of what he’s believed all along,” he wrote. “Bad lapse in discipline that runs risk of extending the scope and duration of the war.”
Mr. Biden’s statement that Mr. Putin could no longer remain in power could be perceived “as a call for regime change,” said Michal Baranowski, a senior fellow and director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund, a nonpartisan policy organization. But he said he did not read it that way, and that Mr. Putin was unlikely to, either. “I think just what President Biden was saying is, how can such a terrible person be ruling Russia?” said Mr. Baranowski. “In that context, I don’t think it will lead to any escalation with Russia.”
Earlier in the day, Mr. Biden stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, and assured him that the United States considered its support for NATO to be a “sacred obligation.”
“America’s ability to meet its role in other parts of the world rests upon a united Europe,” Mr. Biden said.
While Poland’s right-wing, populist government has been embraced by Washington and Brussels as a linchpin of Western security, it has provoked quarrels with both in the past. Mr. Duda, however, thanked Mr. Biden for his support, saying that Poland stood ready as a “serious partner, a credible partner.”
At a stadium in Warsaw, Mr. Biden met with Ukrainian refugees in his first personal encounter with some of the civilians ensnared in a catastrophic humanitarian crisis caused by weeks of indiscriminate Russian shelling of Ukrainian cities and towns.
After speaking with the refugees, including several from the city of Mariupol, which has been flattened by Russian shelling, Mr. Biden called Mr. Putin “a butcher.”
That comment also prompted a retort from Mr. Peskov, who told TASS, the Russian state-owned news agency, that “such personal insults narrow the window of opportunity” for bilateral relations with the Biden administration.
Mr. Biden also met with Ukrainian ministers in his first in-person meeting with the country’s top leaders since the Russian invasion began on Feb. 24, part of what American officials hoped would be a powerful display of the United States’ commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty.
“We did receive additional promises from the United States on how our defense cooperation will evolve,” Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, told reporters, the Reuters news agency reported.
But Mr. Biden gave no indication that the United States was willing to budge from its previous rejection of Ukrainian requests to establish a no-fly zone over the country or to provide it with the MIG-29 warplanes that Poland offered some weeks ago.
As Mr. Biden visited Poland, two missiles struck Lviv, rattling residents who ran into underground shelters as smoke rose into the sky. Lviv’s mayor said a fuel storage facility was on fire, and a regional administrator said five people had been injured.
Although Russian missiles hit a warplane repair factory near Lviv on March 18, the city, which had 700,000 residents before many of them fled the war, has otherwise been spared the airstrikes and missile attacks that have hammered other Ukrainian population centers.
Mr. Biden ended his trip one day after a senior Russian general suggested that the Kremlin might be redefining its goals in the war by focusing less on seizing major cities and instead targeting the eastern Donbas region, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years.
Mr. Biden’s administration was quietly exploring the implications of the statement by the Russian general, Sergei Rudskoi, which indicated that Mr. Putin might be looking for a way out of the brutal invasion he launched with confidence and bravado a month ago.
Western intelligence agencies have in recent weeks picked up chatter among senior Russian commanders about giving up the effort to take Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, and other key areas in the north and west of the country, according to two people with access to the intelligence. Instead, the commanders have talked more narrowly of securing the Donbas region.
Military analysts have cautioned that General Rudkoi’s statement could be intended as misdirection while Russian forces regroup for a new offensive.
Only weeks ago, Mr. Putin threatened to fully absorb Ukraine, warning that, “The current leadership needs to understand that if they continue doing what they are doing, they risk the future of Ukrainian statehood.”
In the latest instance of nuclear saber-rattling, Dmitri A. Medvedev, the vice chairman of Russia’s Security Council, restated Moscow’s willingness to use nuclear weapons against the United States and Europe if its existence was threatened.
“No one wants war, especially given that nuclear war would be a threat to the existence of human civilization,” Mr. Medvedev told Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency in excerpts from an interview published on Saturday.
Hoping to rally his country and encourage negotiations with Moscow, Mr. Zelensky said that the success of a Ukrainian counteroffensive that began two weeks ago was “leading the Russian leadership to a simple and logical idea: Talk is necessary.”
For the moment, large portions of Ukraine remain a battleground in what has increasingly come to resemble a bloody stalemate between the smaller Ukrainian army and Russian troops that have struggled with logistical problems.
On Saturday, Russian forces entered the small northern city of Slavutych, near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where they seized the hospital and briefly detained the mayor, a regional military official said.
In response, dozens of residents unfurled the Ukrainian flag in front of city hall and chanted, “glory to Ukraine,” prompting Russian troops to fire into the air and throw stun grenades, according to videos and the official, Oleksandr Pavliuk.
Michael D. Shear and David E. Sanger reported from Warsaw and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Megan Specia from Krakow, Poland, Anton Troianovski from Istanbul, Valerie Hopkins from Lviv, Ukraine, Eric Schmitt from Washington and Apoorva Mandavilli from New York.
In destructive power, the behemoths of the Cold War dwarfed the American atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. Washington’s biggest test blast was 1,000 times as large. Moscow’s was 3,000 times. On both sides, the idea was to deter strikes with threats of vast retaliation — with mutual assured destruction, or MAD. The psychological bar was so high that nuclear strikes came to be seen as unthinkable.
Today, both Russia and the United States have nuclear arms that are much less destructive — their power just fractions of the Hiroshima bomb’s force, their use perhaps less frightening and more thinkable.
Concern about these smaller arms has soared as Vladimir V. Putin, in the Ukraine war, has warned of his nuclear might, has put his atomic forces on alert and has had his military carry out risky attacks on nuclear power plants. The fear is that if Mr. Putin feels cornered in the conflict, he might choose to detonate one of his lesser nuclear arms — breaking the taboo set 76 years ago after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Analysts note that Russian troops have long practiced the transition from conventional to nuclear war, especially as a way to gain the upper hand after battlefield losses. And the military, they add, wielding the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, has explored a variety of escalatory options that Mr. Putin might choose from.
“The chances are low but rising,” said Ulrich Kühn, a nuclear expert at the University of Hamburg and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The war is not going well for the Russians,” he observed, “and the pressure from the West is increasing.”
Mr. Putin might fire a weapon at an uninhabited area instead of at troops, Dr. Kühn said. In a 2018 study, he laid out a crisis scenario in which Moscow detonated a bomb over a remote part of the North Sea as a way to signal deadlier strikes to come.
“It feels horrible to talk about these things,” Dr. Kühn said in an interview. “But we have to consider that this is becoming a possibility.”
Washington expects more atomic moves from Mr. Putin in the days ahead. Moscow is likely to “increasingly rely on its nuclear deterrent to signal the West and project strength” as the war and its consequences weaken Russia, Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee on Thursday.
President Biden is traveling to a NATO summit in Brussels this week to discuss the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The agenda is expected to include how the alliance will respond if Russia employs chemical, biological, cyber or nuclear weapons.
James R. Clapper Jr., a retired Air Force general who served as President Barack Obama’s director of national intelligence, said Moscow had lowered its bar for atomic use after the Cold War when the Russian army fell into disarray. Today, he added, Russia regards nuclear arms as utilitarian rather than unthinkable.
“They didn’t care,” Mr. Clapper said of Russian troops’ risking a radiation release earlier this month when they attacked the Zaporizhzhia nuclear reactor site — the largest not only in Ukraine but in Europe. “They went ahead and fired on it. That’s indicative of the Russian laissez-faire attitude. They don’t make the distinctions that we do on nuclear weapons.”
Mr. Putin announced last month that he was putting Russian nuclear forces into “special combat readiness.” Pavel Podvig, a longtime researcher of Russia’s nuclear forces, said the alert had most likely primed the Russian command and control system for the possibility of receiving a nuclear order.
It’s unclear how Russia exerts control over its arsenal of less destructive arms. But some U.S. politicians and experts have denounced the smaller weapons on both sides as threatening to upend the global balance of nuclear terror.
For Russia, military analysts note, edgy displays of the less destructive arms have let Mr. Putin polish his reputation for deadly brinkmanship and expand the zone of intimidation he needs to fight a bloody conventional war.
“Putin is using nuclear deterrence to have his way in Ukraine,” said Nina Tannenwald, a political scientist at Brown University who recently profiled the less powerful armaments. “His nuclear weapons keep the West from intervening.”
A global race for the smaller arms is intensifying. Though such weapons are less destructive by Cold War standards, modern estimates show that the equivalent of half a Hiroshima bomb, if detonated in Midtown Manhattan, would kill or injure half a million people.
The case against these arms is that they undermine the nuclear taboo and make crisis situations even more dangerous. Their less destructive nature, critics say, can feed the illusion of atomic control when in fact their use can suddenly flare into a full-blown nuclear war. A simulation devised by experts at Princeton University starts with Moscow firing a nuclear warning shot; NATO responds with a small strike, and the ensuing war yields more than 90 million casualties in its first few hours.
No arms control treaties regulate the lesser warheads, known sometimes as tactical or nonstrategic nuclear weapons, so the nuclear superpowers make and deploy as many as they want. Russia has perhaps 2,000, according to Hans M. Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, a private group in Washington. And the United States has roughly 100 in Europe, a number limited by domestic policy disputes and the political complexities of basing them among NATO allies, whose populations often resist and protest the weapons’ presence.
Russia’s atomic war doctrine came to be known as “escalate to de-escalate” — meaning routed troops would fire a nuclear weapon to stun an aggressor into retreat or submission. Moscow repeatedly practiced the tactic in field exercises. In 1999, for instance, a large drill simulated a NATO attack on Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave on the Baltic Sea. The exercise had Russian forces in disarray until Moscow fired nuclear arms at Poland and the United States.
Dr. Kühn of the University of Hamburg said the defensive training drills of the 1990s had turned toward offense in the 2000s as the Russian army regained some of its former strength.
Concurrent with its new offensive strategy, Russia embarked on a modernization of its nuclear forces, including its less destructive arms. As in the West, some of the warheads were given variable explosive yields that could be dialed up or down depending on the military situation.
A centerpiece of the new arsenal was the Iskander-M, first deployed in 2005. The mobile launcher can fire two missiles that travel roughly 300 miles. The missiles can carry conventional as well as nuclear warheads. Russian figures put the smallest nuclear blast from those missiles at roughly a third that of the Hiroshima bomb.
Before the Russian army invaded Ukraine, satellite images showed that Moscow had deployed Iskander missile batteries in Belarus and to its east in Russian territory. There’s no public data on whether Russia has armed any of the Iskanders with nuclear warheads.
Nikolai Sokov, a former Russian diplomat who negotiated arms control treaties in Soviet times, said that nuclear warheads could also be placed on cruise missiles. The low-flying weapons, launched from planes, ships or the ground, hug the local terrain to avoid detection by enemy radar.
From inside Russian territory, he said, “they can reach all of Europe,” including Britain.
Over the years, the United States and its NATO allies have sought to rival Russia’s arsenal of lesser nuclear arms. It started decades ago as the United States began sending bombs for fighter jets to military bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands. Dr. Kühn noted that the alliance, in contrast to Russia, does not conduct field drills practicing a transition from conventional to nuclear war.
In 2010, Mr. Obama, who had long advocated for a “nuclear-free world,” decided to refurbish and improve the NATO weapons, turning them into smart bombs with maneuverable fins that made their targeting highly precise. That, in turn, gave war planners the freedom to lower the weapons’ variable explosive force to as little as 2 percent of that of the Hiroshima bomb.
The reduced blast capability made breaking the nuclear taboo “more thinkable,” Gen. James E. Cartwright, a vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Mr. Obama, warned at the time. He nonetheless backed the program because the high degree of precision lowered the risk of collateral damage and civilian casualties. But after years of funding and manufacturing delays, the refurbished bomb, known as the B61 Model 12, is not expected to be deployed in Europe until next year, Mr. Kristensen said.
The steady Russian buildups and the slow American responses prompted the Trump administration to propose a new missile warhead in 2018. Its destructive force was seen as roughly half that of the Hiroshima bomb, according to Mr. Kristensen. It was to be deployed on the nation’s fleet of 14 ballistic missile submarines.
While some experts warned that the bomb, known as the W76 Model 2, could make it more tempting for a president to order a nuclear strike, the Trump administration argued that the weapon would lower the risk of war by ensuring that Russia would face the threat of proportional counterstrikes. It was deployed in late 2019.
“It’s all about psychology — deadly psychology,” said Franklin C. Miller, a nuclear expert who backed the new warhead and, before leaving public office in 2005, held Pentagon and White House posts for three decades. “If your opponent thinks he has a battlefield edge, you try to convince him that he’s wrong.”
When he was a candidate for the presidency, Joseph R. Biden Jr. called the less powerful warhead a “bad idea” that would make presidents “more inclined” to use it. But Mr. Kristensen said the Biden administration seemed unlikely to remove the new warhead from the nation’s submarines.
It’s unclear how Mr. Biden would respond to the use of a nuclear weapon by Mr. Putin. Nuclear war plans are one of Washington’s most deeply held secrets. Experts say that the war-fighting plans in general go from warning shots to single strikes to multiple retaliations and that the hardest question is whether there are reliable ways to prevent a conflict from escalating.
Even Mr. Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, said he was unsure how he would advise Mr. Biden if Mr. Putin unleashed his nuclear arms.
“When do you stop?” he asked of nuclear retaliation. “You can’t just keep turning the other cheek. At some point we’d have to do something.”
A U.S. response to a small Russian blast, experts say, might be to fire one of the new submarine-launchedwarheads into the wilds of Siberia or at a military base inside Russia. Mr. Miller, the former government nuclear official and a former chairman of NATO’s nuclear policy committee, said such a blast would be a way of signaling to Moscow that “this is serious, that things are getting out of hand.”
Military strategists say a tit-for-tat rejoinder would throw the responsibility for further escalation back at Russia, making Moscow feel its ominous weight and ideally keeping the situation from spinning out of control despite the dangers in war of miscalculation and accident.
In a darker scenario, Mr. Putin might resort to using atomic arms if the war in Ukraine spilled into neighboring NATO states. All NATO members, including the United States, are obliged to defend one another — potentially with salvos of nuclear warheads.
Dr. Tannenwald, the political scientist at Brown University, wondered if the old protections of nuclear deterrence, now rooted in opposing lines of less destructive arms, would succeed in keeping the peace.
“It sure doesn’t feel that way in a crisis,” she said.
David E. Sanger contributed reporting from Washington.
ODESSA, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces carried out counter-offensives against Russian positions on Wednesday, seeking to inflict what one official called “maximum losses,” even as the invading Russian military stepped up its lethal attacks on cities.
In Mariupol, an airstrike destroyed a theater where about 1,000 people had taken shelter, according to city and regional administrators, and photos and videos posted online showed the burning wreckage of the building. Officials in Mariupol, the besieged southern city that has suffered the most intense bombardment, said they could not yet estimate the number of casualties among civilians, who might have been in a bomb shelter beneath the theater.
After falling back under a relentless pounding over the war’s first weeks, Ukrainian troops tried to regain some momentum with counterattacks on Russian positions outside of Kyiv and in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson, in Ukraine’s south, a senior Ukrainian military official said.
Rather than seek to regain lost territory, Ukrainian forces tried to cause as much destruction and death as possible, attacking Russian troops and equipment with tanks, fighter jets and artillery, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military information.
“In the task of inflicting maximum losses, we’ve done excellently,” the official said.
While President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine pleaded with Congress for more aid and President Biden promised more weaponry, Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin falsely accused Ukraine of seeking weapons of mass destruction and asserted that what he called an “economic blitzkrieg” by the West, aimed at destroying Russia, had failed.
Mr. Putin also sneered at Russians who oppose the war, saying the Russian people could distinguish “true patriots from the scum and the traitors, and just to spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths.”
Ukrainian and Russian negotiators held a third consecutive day of talks on a possible settlement to the conflict, and in typical fashion, the Kremlin left a muddy picture of its intentions. Mr. Putin’s bellicose, often false statements, larded with World War II references, clashed with more conciliatory comments from his underlings.
But little appeared to have changed on the battlefield. The war in Ukraine, about to enter its fourth week, has become a grinding daily slog with little evidence of significant gains for either side.
Details of the Ukrainian offensive could not be fully established independently, though several top Ukrainian officials, including key aides to Mr. Zelensky, confirmed that the counterattacks were underway.
In Kyiv, missile strikes and heavy artillery sounded overnight and in the early morning on Wednesday in exchanges in the outlying suburbs that were notably heavier and louder than in previous days. Two people were wounded and a residential building was damaged in a strike that landed near the city zoo, the second time in two days that shells have landed close to the city center.
Satellite pictures from Tuesday showed heavy black smoke above the Kherson airport, where the senior military official said Ukrainian forces had targeted parked Russian military aircraft.
Kherson was the first (and so far, only) major city to be fully taken over by Russian forces, which have turned it into a forward military base from which they have launched attacks on surrounding cities and villages, according to Ukrainian officials. On Tuesday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that it had taken control of the entire Kherson region, giving Russian forces a significant foothold in southern Ukraine that Ukraine’s military will have difficulty dislodging.
Even so, neither side can be said to have made much progress militarily. The Institute for the Study of War, which has been tracking developments closely, noted in a Tuesday evening assessment that, for nearly two weeks, Russian forces have not been conducting extensive simultaneous attacks that would allow them to seize control of multiple areas at once in Ukraine. And they are unlikely to do so in the next week, it said.
In the absence of significant military gains, Russian forces on Wednesday continued a campaign of terror against Ukrainian civilians.
At least 10 people were killed when a Russian strike hit a bread line in Chernihiv, a city north of Kyiv that has been subject to intense shelling by Russian troops seeking to move on the capital. Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office said in a statement that the attack occurred at about 10 a.m. as people were lined up at a grocery store. Photos released by the prosecutor’s office showed several bodies scattered around a dirt yard.
Using heavy artillery, cruise missiles and fighter jets, Russian forces have systematically targeted civilian areas with no military presence, striking apartment buildings, schools and hospitals in cities and villages all over a broad front in the north, east and south of Ukraine. The attacks may have killed thousands of civilians, though reaching a precise count of the dead has been impossible.
Saying it was “profoundly concerned” by Russia’s use of force, the International Court of Justice ordered Russia on Wednesday to suspend its military operations immediately, pending its full review of a case submitted by Ukraine last month. However, the order was not expected to lead to any immediate cessation in the onslaught.
According to the United Nations, at least 726 civilians have been killed, including 64 children, since the invasion began on Feb. 24, though its figures do not include areas where fighting has been heaviest, like Kharkiv and Mariupol. In Mariupol alone, which has been turned into a hellscape of burning and decimated buildings, local authorities say at least 2,400 have been killed, and probably far more.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, the municipal emergency services agency first reported on Wednesday that 500 civilians had been killed since the war began, but then revised that number to 100 later in the day. In any case, the agency said in statement on Facebook, the true number of deaths could be much higher, noting that emergency workers were continuing to scour the rubble of residential neighborhoods for more bodies, often under fire.
Western defense and intelligence agencies estimate that each side has suffered thousands of combatants killed.
Mr. Zelensky’s appeal to Congress on Wednesday was in part a desperate effort to obtain the weaponry and defenses capable of fending off such attacks. Central to this appeal was a call for a no-fly zone to be imposed over Ukraine, aimed at preventing Russian fighter jets, which cause some of the most severe death and destruction, from operating over Ukrainian territory. “Close the sky” has become a rallying cry for Ukrainian officials and regular citizens.
“Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people,” Mr. Zelensky said.
Knowing that the request had little chance of being approved, given that it would thrust American pilots into direct confrontation with the Russians, Mr. Zelensky quickly pivoted to something to which Republicans and Democrats have been far more receptive: asking for more weapons to enable his people to keep up the fight themselves.
Mr. Biden announced $800 million in new military aid to Ukraine, including antiaircraft and antitank missiles, body armor, vehicles, drones and small arms, bringing to $2 billion the amount delivered or pledged since early last year. But as expected, he did not offer to deliver warplanes or enforce a no-fly zone.
The United States and its allies have relied primarily on financial sanctions that are already devastating the Russian economy.
Mr. Putin, in a televised videoconference with top officials, once again falsely described the government in Kyiv, led by a Jewish president and prime minister, as being “pro-Nazi” and on its way to acquiring nuclear weapons. “Their aim, of course, would have been Russia,” he said.
And then he went deeper into unreality, accusing the government in Kyiv of disregard for the suffering of the Ukrainian people that his own forces were bombing every day.
“The fact that people are dying, that hundreds of thousands, millions have become refugees, that there is a real humanitarian catastrophe in cities held by neo-Nazis and armed criminals,” he said. “They’re indifferent.”
Russian officials closer to the talks said Wednesday there had been signs of progress, though even there, the picture was unclear. They said the idea of a neutral Ukraine, with a status like that of Sweden or Austria, was on the table, which their Ukrainian counterparts disputed.
Sergei V. Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, told a Russian television network that the status of the Russian language and Russian news outlets in Ukraine were under discussion, and that “there are concrete formulas that are close to being agreed on.”
Mr. Zelensky indicated that he was willing to compromise on one of Russia’s central demands. In his daily video message, he said Ukraine “must recognize” that it would not join NATO. He added that negotiations had become more “realistic.” But one of his negotiators, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Ukraine needed “absolute security guarantees,” including military support from its allies.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Odessa, Ukraine; Valerie Hopkins from Lviv, Ukraine; and Carlotta Gall from Kyiv. Reporting was contributed by Anton Troianovski and Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York.