DUBAI/ATHENS, May 27 (Reuters) – Iranian forces seized two Greek tankers in the Gulf on Friday, shortly after Tehran warned it would take “punitive action” against Athens over the confiscation of Iranian oil by the United States from a tanker held off the Greek coast.
“The Revolutionary Guards Navy today seized two Greek tankers for violations in Gulf waters,” said a Guards statement, quoted by Iranian state news agency IRNA. It gave no further details and did not say what the alleged violations were.
Greece’s foreign ministry said an Iranian navy helicopter landed on Greek flagged vessel Delta Poseidon, which was sailing in international waters, 22 nautical miles from the Iranian shore, and took the crew hostage, among them two Greek citizens.
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It said a similar incident took place on another Greek-flagged vessel near Iran, without naming the ship, adding both actions violated international law and Greece had informed its allies, as well as complained to Iran’s ambassador in Athens.
Greece-based Delta Tankers, which operates the Delta Poseidon, could not be immediately reached for comment.
Greek authorities last month impounded the Iranian-flagged Pegas, with 19 Russian crew members on board, near the coast of the southern island of Evia due to European Union sanctions.
The United States later confiscated the Iranian oil cargo held onboard and plans to send it to the United States on another vessel, Reuters reported on Thursday.
The Pegas was later released, but the seizure inflamed tensions at a delicate time, with Iran and world powers seeking to revive a nuclear deal that Washington abandoned under former President Donald Trump.
Earlier on Friday, Nour News, which is affiliated to an Iranian state security body, said on Twitter: “Following the seizure of an Iranian tanker by the Greek government and the transfer of its oil to the Americans, #Iran has decided to take punitive action against #Greece.”
It did not say what kind of action Iran would take.
The Pegas was among five vessels designated by Washington on Feb. 22 – two days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – for sanctions against Promsvyazbank, a bank viewed as critical to Russia’s defence sector.
It was unclear whether the cargo was impounded because it was Iranian oil or due to the sanctions on the tanker over its Russian links. Iran and Russia face separate U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency later quoted an unnamed source as saying: “There are 17 other Greek vessels in the Persian Gulf, which could be seized by the Revolutionary Guards if Greece continues its mischievousness.”
“Informed sources also stress that Greece should take compensatory measures towards the Iranian oil tanker as soon as possible,” said Tasnim.
A maritime security source said the other tanker seized on Friday was the Greek-flagged Prudent Warrior. Its operator, Greece-based shipping firm Polembros, told Reuters there had been “an incident” with one of its ships, without elaborating, adding it was “making every effort to resolve the issue.”
U.S. advocacy group United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), which monitors Iran-related tanker traffic through ship and satellite tracking, said Prudent Warrior was carrying a cargo of Qatari and Iraqi oil, while the Delta Poseidon was loaded with Iraqi oil.
Each vessel was carrying approximately one million barrels, it said.
“This should have direct implications on the JCPOA (Iran nuclear) negotiations and further stalling any chances of reviving a deal,” Claire Jungman, chief of staff at UANI, told Reuters.
A spokesperson with the U.S. Fifth Fleet in Bahrain said it was aware of the reported seizures and was looking into them.
Also on Friday, Iran summoned an envoy of Switzerland, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran, to protest against the Pegas oil seizure, the Iranian foreign ministry said.
“The Islamic Republic expressed its deep concern over the U.S. government’s continued violation of international laws and international maritime conventions,” state media quoted the foreign ministry as saying.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment on the oil seizure.
IRNA quoted Iran’s Ports and Maritime Organization as saying the tanker had sought refuge along the Greek coast after experiencing technical problems and poor weather. It called the seizure of its cargo “a clear example of piracy”.
The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on what it described as a Russian-backed oil smuggling and money laundering network for the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force.
In 2019, Iran seized a British tanker near the Strait of Hormuz for alleged marine violations two weeks after British forces detained an Iranian tanker near Gibraltar, accusing it of shipping oil to Syria in violation of European Union sanctions. Both vessels were later released.
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Reporting by George Georgiopoulos in Athens, Jonathan Saul in London and Dubai newsroom
Editing by Angus MacSwan and Alistair Bell
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Army vehicles were so decrepit that repair crews were stationed roughly every 15 miles. Some officers were so out of shape that the military budgeted $1.5 million to re-size standard uniforms.
That was the Russian military more than a decade ago when the country invaded Georgia, according to the defense minister at the time. The shortcomings, big and small, were glaring enough that the Kremlin announced a complete overhaul of the military to build a leaner, more flexible, professional force.
But now, almost three months into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it is clear the Kremlin fell woefully short of creating an effective fighting machine. Russian forces in Ukraine have underperformed to a degree that has surprised most Western analysts, raising the prospect that President Vladimir V. Putin’s military operation could end in failure.
By any measure, despite capturing territory in the south and east, the Russian military has suffered a major blow in Ukraine. It has been forced to abandon what it expected would be a blitzkrieg to seize the entire country in a few days. Its forces were driven from around Kyiv, the capital. The flagship of its Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, was sunk; it has never controlled the skies; and by some Western estimates, tens of thousands of Russians have died.
This war has exposed the fact that, to Russia’s detriment, much of the military culture and learned behavior of the Soviet era endures: inflexibility in command structure, corruption in military spending, and concealing casualty figures and repeating the mantra that everything is going according to plan.
The signs of trouble were hiding in plain sight. Just last summer, Russia held war games that the Ministry of Defense said showed its ability to coordinate a deployment of 200,000 men from different branches of the military in a mock effort to combat NATO. They would be among the largest military exercises ever, it said.
Lt. General Yunus-Bek Evkunov, the deputy defense minister, told reporters the exercises demonstrated Russia’s ability to rapidly deploy joint forces in a manner that would “make sober any enemy.’’
The whole exercise was scripted. There was no opposing force; the main units involved had practiced their choreography for months; and each exercise started and stopped at a fixed time. The number of troops participating was probably half the number advertised, military analysts said.
“It is the Soviet army, basically,” said Kamil Galeev, an independent Russian analyst and former fellow at The Wilson Center in Washington. “The reforms increased the efficiency of the army, but they only went halfway.”
When, after the Georgia conflict in 2008, Russia tried to revamp its military, the idea was to jettison the rigidly centralized, Soviet-era army that could supposedly muster four million troops in no time. Instead, field officers would get more responsibility, units would learn to synchronize their skills and the entire arsenal would be dragged into the computer age.
Many traditionalists resisted change, preferring the old model of a huge, concentrated force. But other factors also contributed to the military’s inability to transform. Birthrates plunged in the 1990s, leading to a shrinking pool of men that could be conscripted. That, and persistent low salaries, delayed recruitment targets. Endemic corruption handicapped the efforts.
But the basic problem was that the military culture of the Soviet Union endured, despite the lack of men and means to sustain it, analysts said.
“The Soviet military was built to generate millions of men to fill lots and lots of divisions that had endless stockpiles of equipment,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va. “It was designed for World War III, the war with NATO that never came.”
Ultimately, the push for change stalled, leaving a hybrid version of the military somewhere between mass mobilization and a more flexible force, analysts said. It still favors substantial artillery over infantry troops who can take and hold land.
The scripted way the military practices warfare, on display in last summer’s exercises, is telling. “Nobody is being tested on their ability to think on the battlefield,” said William Alberque, the Berlin-based director of the arms control program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Instead, officers are assessed on their ability to follow instructions, he said.
Russia would like the world to view its army as it appears during the annual Victory Day parade — a well-oiled instrument of fit soldiers in dashing uniforms marching in unison and bristling with menacing weapons.
“They use the military forces as a propaganda machine,” said Gleb Irisov, 31, a former air force lieutenant who left the military in 2020 after five years. He then worked as a military analyst for the official TASS news agency before quitting and leaving the country because he strongly opposed the invasion.
Senior military commanders argue that recent expeditionary forces, especially in Syria, provided real combat training, but analysts call that claim inflated.
Russian troops faced no real adversary in Syria; the war was mostly an air force operation where the pilots could hover over targets at will. Russia has not fought a large land war since World War II.
Yet Russia’s leaders exaggerated the country’s success. In 2017, Sergei K. Shoigu, Russia’s defense minister, bragged at a meeting of fellow ministers in the Philippines that Russia had “liberated’’ 503,223 square kilometers in Syria. The problem is that the area Mr. Shoigu claimed to have freed from militants is more than twice the size of the entire country, reported Proekt, an independent news outlet.
With about 900,000 people overall, a little over one third of them ground forces, the Russian military is not that large, considering that it must defend a vast country covering 11 time zones, analysts said. But the goal of recruiting 50,000 contract soldiers every year, first stated a decade ago, has not been met, so there is still a yearly draft of 18- to 27-year olds.
Mr. Putin has not resorted to a mass military draft that would muster all able-bodied adult males for the war. But even if he did, the infrastructure required to train civilians en masse no longer exists. The consensus is that the bulk of Russia’s available ground forces have already been deployed in Ukraine.
Rampant corruption has drained resources. “Each person steals as much of the allocated funds as is appropriate for their rank,” said retired Maj. Gen. Harri Ohra-Aho, the former Chief of Intelligence in Finland and still a Ministry of Defense adviser.
The corruption is so widespread that some cases inevitably land in court.
In January, Col. Evgeny Pustovoy, the former head of the procurement department for armored vehicles, was accused of helping to steal more than $13 million by faking contracts for batteries from 2018 to 2020, according to TASS.
In February, a Moscow military court stripped Maj. Gen. Alexander Ogloblin of his rank and sentenced him to 4.5 years in prison for what the charges called fraud on an “especially large scale.” The authorities accused him of embezzling about $25 million by vastly overstating the expenses in state contracts for satellite and other equipment, the business news website BFM.RU reported.
Huge contracts are not the only temptation. The combination of low salaries — a senior officer earns roughly $1,000 per month — and swelling budgets is a recipe for all sorts of theft, analysts said, leading to a chain reaction of problems.
Commanders disguise how few exercises they hold, pocketing the resources budgeted for them, said Mr. Irisov, the analyst. That exacerbates a lack of basic military skills like navigation and shooting, although the air force did maintain flight safety standards.
“It is impossible to imagine the scale of lies inside the military,” Mr. Irisov said. “The quality of military production is very low because of the race to steal money.”
One out of every five rubles spent on the armed forces was stolen, the chief military prosecutor, Sergey Fridinsky, told Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official government newspaper, in 2011.
Mr. Irisov said he had encountered numerous examples of subpar equipment — the vaunted Pantsir air defense system unable to shoot down a small Israeli drone over Syria; Russian-made light bulbs on the wings of SU-35 warplanes melting at supersonic speeds; new trucks breaking down after two years.
In general, Russian weaponry lags behind its computerized Western counterparts, but it is serviceable, military analysts said. Still, some new production has been limited.
For example, the T-14 Armata, a “next generation” battle tank unveiled in 2015, has not been deployed in Ukraine because there are so few, they said.
Russia has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into its military, producing under the State Armament Program a stream of new airplanes, tanks, helicopters and other matériel. Military spending has not dipped below 3.5 percent of gross domestic product for much of the past decade, according to figures from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, at a time when most European nations struggled to invest 2 percent of G.D.P. And that is only the public portion of Russia’s military budget.
This kind of financial investment has helped Russia make what gains it has in Ukraine.
Johan Norberg, a Russia analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, said Russia and its military are too sprawling to expect them to fix every problem, even in a decade. The war in Ukraine exposed the fact that the Russian military is “not 10 feet tall, but they are not two feet tall, either,” he said.
Alina Lobzina and Milana Mazaeva contributed reporting.
Rights groups fear only small number will be freed
Families desperate for news of loved ones missing for years
BERLIN/DAMASCUS, May 7 (Reuters) – For ten years, Rojin Derki hoped her brother Mohammad was still alive and would one day be released from a Syrian government prison after his arrest in 2012.
Yet when a presidential decree last week gave a general amnesty for prisoners, she had mixed feelings.
“It’s an ugly feeling because you don’t know if he is alive, if he will be released, or if he will remember us,” Derki said, holding a photo of her brother at a sit-in on Saturday in Berlin by dozens of Syrians for political detainees.
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“When my mother learned about the decree she said ‘even if he doesn’t recognise me, at least I will do’,” said Derki, whose brother supported an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.
The April 30 amnesty appears to be the first for those detained under a sweeping 2012 counter-terrorism decree, which rights groups say allowed authorities to round up opposition activists and aid workers.
It has given hope for thousands of Syrian families to see loved ones free again after years of detention. But rights groups say the decree will only give freedom to a small fraction of the political prisoners the government detains.
The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR), which has been documenting the war from outside Syria, said around 200 people have been released so far since the decree, with the total unlikely to exceed 1,800.
“The government has 132,000 Syrian citizens (detained for political reasons), according to SNHR data, of which there are 87,000 forcibly disappeared, meaning they are not included in amnesty decrees,” SNHR head Fadel Abdul Ghany said.
Derki, with other Syrians, laid down framed photos of their detained family members in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.
They were unhappy at the decree’s lack of clarity.
“Like me, all families here are angry. We don’t know what this amnesty means,” said Yasmin Shabaji, who has not heard news of her detained brother and father in almost a decade.
Ammar Bilal, a member of the legislation department at Syria’s ministry of justice, said it was not possible to determine the number of people the amnesty would cover, adding that the pardon was more comprehensive than previous ones because it included people tried in absentia.
Syria’s Justice Ministry said all detainees covered by the amnesty would be released successively in coming days, without providing further details.
For Derki, the decree was another way for the Syrian leader to show his power. “He did this to say to Syrians: ‘I am still here and your sons are still held by me.'”
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Writing by Riham Alkousaa;
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
Smoke hung over the gray streets that day in Kyiv, where protesters had piled tires, furniture and barbed wire to barricade themselves from security forces. Torn blue and yellow Ukrainian flags whipped in the wind, and candles left on sidewalks marked where people had been gunned down. A drawing of a reviled president depicted as a pig was tacked to a lamp post.
And yet there was a feeling of hope in Kyiv in March 2014, as Secretary of State John F. Kerry met with survivors of a violent crackdown on demonstrations. He commended the Ukrainians for their bravery in confronting a Kremlin-backed leader and promised that the United States would support the new government.
But Russian forces had moved into Crimea, Ukraine’s peninsula on the Black Sea, and Mr. Kerry warned: “It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further.”
Eight years later, with Russian troops obliterating Ukrainian cities and towns, Mr. Kerry’s words seem eerily prescient.
Through the administrations of three American presidents, the United States has sent mixed signals about its commitment to Ukraine. All the while, President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia watched Washington’s moves, biding his time.
“We’ve been all over the place on Ukraine,” said Fiona Hill, a Russia and Eurasia expert who advised the three administrations before President Biden. “Our own frames have shifted over time, and our own policies have shifted.”
“I think we need to re-articulate why Ukraine matters,” she said.
Now, two months into Mr. Putin’s war, the United States is at the center of an extraordinary campaign to foil him, casting the military conflict as a broader battle between democratic values and authoritarian might.
“It’s nothing less than a direct challenge to the rule-based international order established since the end of World War II,” Mr. Biden said in Warsaw last month. “And it threatens to return to decades of war that ravaged Europe before the international rule-based order was put in place. We cannot go back to that.”
The United States has rushed weapons and humanitarian aid to Ukraine and imposed sanctions intended to cut off Russia from global markets. This past weekend, Mr. Biden sent Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to Ukraine as affirmation of Washington’s support.
After a secret train ride from Poland, the two spoke with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Sunday about military aid. Mr. Austin said the Pentagon would expand training for Ukrainians on weapons systems; Mr. Blinken said Mr. Biden was nominating Bridget Brink, currently the ambassador to Slovakia, as his ambassador to Ukraine, the State Department said in a readout. The department is sending American diplomats back to Ukraine this week.
In many ways, officials said, Mr. Biden is trying to make up for the years of U.S. indecisiveness toward Kyiv. Those who wavered earlier include top Biden aides who had worked in the Obama administration as well as officials in the administration of Donald J. Trump, who undermined U.S. policy on Ukraine for personal political gain, according to current and former officialsand a review of records.
The Roots of War
Since the earliest days of Ukraine’s independence, in 1991, American officials have recognized the country’s strategic value as Russia struggled to find its footing after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
“Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had been the national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, wrote in a March 1994 essay. “But with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
Two months earlier, under pressure from the United States, Ukraine had reached an agreement to destroy its nuclear arsenal. President Bill Clinton heralded the pact as “a hopeful and historic breakthrough” to improve global security. But Ukraine’s leader, President Leonid Kuchma, warned that it would make his fledgling country more vulnerable.
“If tomorrow, Russia goes into Crimea, no one will raise an eyebrow,” he said that year.
At the time, Moscow was already goading a separatist movement in Crimea, even as Mr. Clinton predicted that Ukraine would become a major European power.
Yet over the next decade, experts said, NATO left out Ukraine to avoid angering Russia, which some members saw as an important economic partner and energy supplier and hoped would evolve into a more democratic and less threatening power.
The Baltic States joined NATO in 2004, and four years later, President George W. Bush publicly backed Ukraine’s ambition to follow. But Western European nations were reluctant. Today, Ukraine is neither a NATO member nor a part of the European Union, and officials cautioned as recently as this month that its inclusion in either was far from likely.
Years after Mr. Bush’s show of support, a new Ukrainian president, Viktor F. Yanukovych, tried to move the country closer to Russia, sparking mass protests in November 2013 when he refused to sign a long-planned agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union.
That led to the crackdownin Kyiv’s streets in 2014.
Security forces opened fire on protesters in central Kyiv in February that year, killing dozens. Protesters held their ground, attracting public support in Europe and the United States. Mr. Yanukovych fled to Russia.
“In the hearts of Ukrainians and the eyes of the world, there is nothing strong about what Russia is doing,” Mr. Kerry said during his visit to Kyiv.
Within days, Mr. Putin ordered the invasion of Crimea, and he soon formally recognized it as a “sovereign and independent state.”
A slow-burn war in eastern Ukraine followed, with Kyiv battling a separatist movement supported by Russian weapons and troops. An estimated 13,000 people were killed over the next eight years.
Mr. Putin’s swift actions caught President Barack Obama off guard.
Mr. Obama vowed the United States would never recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea and imposed economic sanctions, but his aides said in later accounts that he was skeptical of Ukraine’s corruption-ridden government.
And Mr. Obama said in a 2016 interview that a showdown with Mr. Putin over Ukraine would have been futile.
His administration gave more than $1.3 billion in assistance to Ukraine between 2014 and 2016, but Mr. Obama said no when his national security team, including Mr. Biden and Mr. Kerry, recommended sending weapons to Kyiv.
Among Mr. Obama’s defenders was Mr. Blinken, then the deputy secretary of state and now America’s top diplomat.
By sending military aid to Ukraine, “you’re playing to Russia’s strength, because Russia is right next door,” Mr. Blinken, then the deputy secretary of state, said in early 2015.
Any aid, he added, “is likely to be matched and then doubled and tripled and quadrupled by Russia.”
Neither the Obama administration nor its key European allies believed Ukraine was ready to join NATO. But tensions in the alliance were growing as Europeans sought to maintain trade ties and energy deals with Russia.
The division was captured in a phone call in which a senior State Department official profanely criticized European leaders’ approach to helping Ukraine. A leaked recording of the call was posted on YouTube in February 2014 in what was widely believed to be an attempt by Russia to stir up discord between the United States and Europe.
Yet as much as anything else, Ukraine was a costly distraction to Mr. Obama’s broader agenda.
“It was hard to reconcile the time and energy required to lead the diplomacy on Ukraine with the demands on the United States elsewhere around the world, especially after ISIS took over much of Iraq and Syria in the summer of 2014,” Derek H. Chollet, a senior Pentagon official at the time, wrote in a book about Mr. Obama’s foreign policy.
Mr. Chollet is now a senior counselor to Mr. Blinken at the State Department.
‘Do Us a Favor’
Volodymyr Zelensky, a former comedian, won a landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential elections in April 2019 after campaigning on an anti-corruption pledge.
Once in office, he turned to ending the war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine through negotiations with Mr. Putin.
The new Ukrainian president “knew he needed the backing of the United States and the American president,” said William B. Taylor Jr., who started his second tour as ambassador to Ukraine that June after his predecessor, Marie L. Yovanovitch, was pushed out on Mr. Trump’s orders.
Mr. Zelensky tried to arrange a meeting with Mr. Trump at the White House. But Mr. Trump had negative views of Ukraine even before he took office, influenced partly by his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, who had made more than $60 million consulting for a Ukrainian political party backed by Russia.
Mr. Trump’s opinions were reinforced in meetings with Mr. Putin, whom he publicly admired, and Viktor Orban, the autocratic prime minister of Hungary.
And close associates of Mr. Trump, in particular Rudolph W. Giuliani, then his personal lawyer, were urging the president to get Mr. Zelensky to open two investigations: one into Mr. Biden, Mr. Trump’s main political opponent, for actions in Ukraine related to his son Hunter Biden’s business dealings; the other based in part on a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 election, to help Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump embraced the theory because it undermined the finding of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia had interfered to help him.
But U.S. policy had been on a notably different track. Earlier, in December 2017, under pressure from his national security aides and Congress, Mr. Trump agreed to do what Mr. Obama would not: approve the sale of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
But in mid-2019, the White House froze $391 million in military aid to Ukraine, including the Javelins, to build leverage for Mr. Trump’s demands, congressional investigators later found. The move hobbled Ukraine’s war effort against Russia-backed separatists.
“For it to be held up, they couldn’t understand that,” Mr. Taylor said.
That set the stage for a fateful July 25 call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky. “I would like you to do us a favor,” Mr. Trump said. He requested the two investigations.
Mr. Zelensky and his aides were confused. “The rest of the U.S. government was very supportive of Ukraine,” Mr. Taylor said. “But from the top, the president had a different message and set of conditions.”
Mr. Zelensky scheduled a CNN interview for September to announce one or both of the investigations that Mr. Trump had requested to satisfy the American president. But the interview never happened because journalists had begun reporting on the hold on military aid, and lawmakers sympathetic to Ukraine had persisted in asking the White House about the suspended aid. On Sept. 9, three House committees announced investigations into the pressure campaign after reviewing a whistle-blower complaint citing the July call.
The Trump administration released the aid on Sept. 11.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv on Jan. 31, 2020, the first cabinet official to do so since the announcement of an impeachment inquiry into Mr. Trump the previous September. The Senate trial was underway.
Just days earlier, Mr. Pompeo had blown up at an NPR reporter in an interview, asking her to identify Ukraine on an unmarked map and yelling, “Do you think Americans care” about Ukraine? — using anexpletive before “Ukraine.”
Yet in Kyiv, Mr. Pompeo stood next to Mr. Zelensky in the presidential palace and said the U.S. commitment to support Ukraine “will not waver.”
But the damage had been done, and Mr. Zelensky was unconvinced that the United States was a trusted ally, Ms. Yovanovitch said in an interview last month.
“Trying to use our national security policy in order to further President Trump’s personal and political agenda was not just wrong, but it was really detrimental to the bilateral relationship,” she said. “It colored how Zelensky handled foreign policy.”
With all the disruption, former U.S. officials said, Mr. Putin no doubt saw weakness in Washington.
Biden vs. Putin
Consumed by the pandemic and the economy, Mr. Biden did not prioritize Ukraine at first. But Mr. Blinken visited Kyiv in May 2021 with a message of support.
During a steady rain, Mr. Blinken joined Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, on a walk to the Wall of National Remembrance, where photos of soldiers who had been killed in combat with Russia in the Donbas were displayed outside St. Michael’s monastery.
But he also went to Kyiv with some tough love, determined to press Ukraine to make political and economic changes — a core issue for Mr. Biden when he oversaw relations with the country as vice president.
Just before the visit, Mr. Zelensky’s government had replaced the chief executive of the largest state-owned energy company, whom Western officials had praised for his transparency. The State Department had chastised the move as “just the latest example” of Ukrainian leaders violating practices of good governance. In Kyiv, Mr. Blinken told reporters that he was urging Ukraine to strengthen itself by “building institutions, advancing reforms, combating corruption.”
Such concerns paled in the face of Russia’s growing military threat, which Washington was watching “very, very closely,” Mr. Blinken said. Mr. Putin had begun amassing troops along Ukraine’s borders. By fall, the number approached 100,000.
This past January, Mr. Blinken rushed back to Kyiv for more consultations before a hastily arranged meeting in Geneva with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, in a last-ditch attempt to avert war.
But Russia would not be deterred, and high-level contacts between Washington and Moscow have been severely limited ever since.
By contrast, Mr. Blinken speaks frequently to Mr. Kuleba to convey American support that, at least in terms of aid, has been greater than at any time in the three decades since Ukraine declared independence.
“The world is with you,” Mr. Blinken told him on March 5, stepping into Ukraine just a few feet beyond Poland’s border.
“We’re in it with Ukraine — one way or another, short run, the medium run, the long run,” he said.
Mr. Kuleba referred to an “unprecedented, swift reaction” to Russia’s invasion and thanked Mr. Blinken for the support.
LVIV, Ukraine — Ukraine said Monday that Russian forces had launched a ground assault along a nearly 300-mile front in the east after hitting the country with one of the most intense missile barrages in weeks, including the first lethal strike on Lviv, the western city that has been a refuge for tens of thousands of fleeing civilians.
The missile strikes, which killed at least seven people in Lviv alone, punctured any illusions that the picturesque city of cobbled streets and graceful squares near Poland’s border was still a sanctuary from the horrors Russia has inflicted elsewhere in Ukraine over the past two months.
The Lviv attack followed 300 missile and artillery strikes that Russia claimed to have carried out, mainly in the east, in what appeared to be a campaign to terrorize the population and intimidate Ukraine’s military before the new ground offensive had begun in the part of the country known as the Donbas.
The secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said on national television that the Russian ground assault, which had been anticipated for weeks, stretched along nearly the entire front line, from the northern Kharkiv region south to the besieged port of Mariupol.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said, “A very significant part of the Russian army is now concentrated for that offensive,” adding, “No matter how many servicemen get thrown there, we will fight, we will defend ourselves.”
The overnight missile barrage targeted fuel depots, warehouses, and other infrastructure, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry. Russian forces also appeared to be finally seizing the entire port of Mariupol, where outnumbered Ukrainian fighters defied demands to lay down their weapons at a vast steel plant that has become a kind of industrial Alamo.
Mariupol, a once-vibrant city in southeast Ukraine, is the last obstacle to Russia’s drive to secure a “land bridge” to Crimea, the southern Ukrainian peninsula seized by Russian forces eight years ago.
The intensified attacks came amid signs that international sanctions were beginning to choke Russia’s economy — and in the process, opening fissures between the country’s leaders. President Vladimir V. Putin insisted that “the strategy of an economic blitzkrieg has failed.” But Moscow’s mayor warned that 200,000 people risked losing their jobs in the capital alone, while the head of the central bank warned that the effect of Russia’s isolation was just starting to be felt.
While Ukraine’s east remained the focus of Russia’s recalibrated military ambitions, the strike on Lviv was a lethal reminder that no Ukrainian city, even one scarcely 50 miles from the Polish border, lies outside the range of Moscow’s rockets.
Gray smoke billowed from what remained of the red roof of a long concrete garage on the city’s western outskirts, a sign outside advertising “carwash” and “tire replacement.” A hole in the roof indicated that the building had taken a direct hit from a missile. Air raid sirens wailed continuously as firefighters struggled to extinguish the flames and ambulances ferried away the wounded.
While the garage burned, a train rumbled by toward Lviv’s nearby railway station, carrying passengers fleeing the fighting in the eastern city of Dnipro. It stopped briefly and the train’s conductors and other workers tried to reassure anxious passengers as they started hearing about the airstrikes by phone.
“It was panic,” said Anna Khrystiuk, a volunteer who was handing out information to displaced people, several of whom ran to a shelter in the station when the missiles hit. “Many people were from Kharkiv and other places and they were so afraid of rockets already. They thought that it was safe to stay here.”
In Kharkiv, a northeastern city shelled relentlessly since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a fresh artillery strike killed at least one person in a residential area. The victim was standing a few yards from an apartment building that was struck. It came after a concerted missile barrage on Sunday killed at least five people in the city’s center.
“It was the first time this neighborhood was hit,” said Lubov Ustymenko, 72, who wore a winter coat and stood a few yards from a discarded umbrella and a puddle filled with a mix of blood and the morning’s light rain. “Our life is decided in one second — you go outside, and then you’re gone.”
Russia’s ground onslaught — a push to seize more of the Donbas — got underway after weeks of setbacks, including Russia’s retreat from areas surrounding the capital, Kyiv, and the sinking of a major Russian warship in the Black Sea.
Having failed in the early weeks of the war to destroy the Ukrainian military’s network of fuel and ammunition depots — perhaps under the erroneous assumption that Ukrainian forces would surrender wholesale — Russia has intensified its attacks against those facilities, as well as against transportation infrastructure.
But Russia’s puzzling failure to do so earlier has left its forces with costly unfinished business, and given Ukrainian troops an unexpected advantage. Pavel Luzin, a Russian military analyst, said that while Russia has hit railway facilities, so far it has avoided aiming missiles at bridges over big rivers.
“If Russia plans to expand its presence on Ukraine’s territory — and the end goal since 2014 has been the destruction of Ukrainian statehood as such — it would need the railway too,” Mr. Luzin said.
Besides targeting Kharkiv, Russian forces have unleashed further destruction on eastern cities like Mykolaiv, which lies in Russia’s pathway to the Black Sea port of Odesa. Those attacks have tied up Ukrainian forces and prevented them from joining the fight farther east, while sowing terror among civilians after Russia failed to conquer these cities early in the war.
In Mariupol, devastated by weeks of siege warfare, a band of Ukrainian fighters remained ensconced in the Azovstal steel plant after having rejected Russian demands to surrender. Russia intensified its bombing of the factory, and it was unclear and how long the Ukrainians could endure in the plant’s labyrinthine underground tunnels. Officials on both sides said Russia could control the city soon.
Even with much of Mariupol now a wasteland, the city’s capture would represent a key strategic prize for Russia and would free up forces for its Donbas offensive.
Still, British defense intelligence officials said the grinding battle for the city has become a source of anxiety for Russian commanders.
“Concerted Ukrainian resistance has severely tested Russian forces and diverted men and matériel, slowing Russia’s advance elsewhere,” said Mick Smeath, a British defense attaché. He likened Russia’s treatment of Mariupol to its brutal tactics in Chechnya in 1999 and Syria in 2016.
After two months of fighting, pro-war commentators in Russia are pushing the army for tangible military victories that would cover up some of the embarrassments Moscow has suffered, including the sinking of the Moskva, the flagship of the Kremlin’s Black Sea fleet, and the retreat from around Kyiv. So far, Russia has been able to claim only the capture of Kherson, a regional capital, as a significant battlefield achievement.
On Russia’s state-run television, commentators have enthusiastically promoted the Donbas offensive as a decisive battle that could be a turning point in the war. Many point toward May 9, the commemoration of Russia’s 1945 victory over Nazi Germany, as the date when Mr. Putin could claim a semblance of victory in Ukraine.
“The big battle for the Donbas has already started,” said Yuri Podolyaka, a pro-Russia analyst who publishes military reports on his popular channel on Telegram. “The activity of the Russian artillery and air forces has intensified again.”
On Monday, the head of the regional administration in Luhansk, which is part of the Donbas, said that Russian forces had gained control of the town of Kreminna, adding to territory in the region held by Moscow.
Still, those scattered Russian advances carry less psychological punch than lethal strikes on Lviv, a city that has become a critical gateway to safety for the millions of Ukrainians who have fled westward, trying to escape the worst of the fighting. In late February, it was quickly repurposed from a charming tourist destination into a base of operations for a vast relief effort, serving as a channel for humanitarian supplies, aid workers, foreign fighters making their way to frontline cities, and many foreign journalists.
Hundreds of thousands of displaced people have passed through the city’s train and bus stations. For many others, it is a new — if fleeting — home. Lviv, which had about 720,000 residents before the war began, has since welcomed at least 350,000 people displaced from other parts of the country.
Until Monday, the only direct targets that had been hit in Lviv were a fuel storage site and tank facility in the city’s northeast, hit by several missile strikes about three weeks earlier. Before that, a pair of attacks targeted an airport facility and a military base near Lviv, killing at least 35 people.
In Monday’s strike, three missiles hit empty military warehouses while a fourth hit the garage, according to the head of Lviv’s military administration, Maksym Koztyskyy. He did not say whether all the casualties were from the strike on the garage. Besides the seven killed, he said 11 people were injured — a toll that could rise as rescue workers cleared rubble from the site. The missiles, Mr. Koztyskyy said, had been launched by warplanes from the direction of the Caspian Sea.
Orest Maznin, a police officer, said he had been driving to work past the garage when the missiles struck, and he narrowly escaped shrapnel. The windshield of his car had a large hole from the impact of a piece of metal.
“It happened too quickly for me to be afraid,” Mr. Maznin said.
Jane Arraf reported from Lviv, Ukraine, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, and Mark Landler from London. Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkiv, Ukraine, Michael Schwirtz from Kyiv, and Anton Troianovski and Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul.
KYIV, Ukraine — There are fields instead of city streets, farmsteads instead of apartment buildings. Open highways stretch to the horizon.
The battles in the north that Ukraine won over the past seven weeks raged in towns and densely populated suburbs around the capital, Kyiv, but the war is about to take a hard turn to the southeast and into a vast expanse of wide-open flatland, fundamentally changing the nature of the combat, the weapons at play and the strategies that might bring victory.
Military analysts, Ukrainian commanders, soldiers and even Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin, acknowledge that a wider war that began with a failed attempt to capture the capital will now be waged in the eastern Donbas region.
With few natural barriers, the armies can try to flank and surround each other, firing fierce barrages of artillery from a distance to soften enemy positions.
Russia invaded in February, Ukraine had been fighting Russia-backed separatists there since 2014, when Moscow fomented an uprising and sent in forces to support it. That war had settled into a stalemate, with each side controlling territory and neither gaining much ground.
Now, what may be the decisive phase of Mr. Putin’s latest war is returning to that same region, blighted by eight years of conflict and littered with land mines and trenches, as he tries to conquer the portion of Donbas still held by Ukraine. Neither side has made a major move in recent days, and analysts say it will most likely require a long and bloody conflict for either one to prevail.
Slovakia this week provided Ukraine with a potent, long-range antiaircraft missile system, the S-300. And on Wednesday, President Biden announced an $800 million military aid package to Ukraine that for the first time included more-powerful weaponry, including 18 155-millimeter howitzers, 40,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and 200 armored personnel carriers.
warn the United States of “unpredictable consequences” of shipping such arms, American officials said on Friday.
Perhaps the biggest difference from the northern phase of the war, fought among towns, woods and hills, will be the terrain. Military analysts are forecasting an all-out, bloody battle on the steppe.
“There’s nowhere to hide,” said Maksim Finogin, a veteran of Ukraine’s conflict in Donbas.
considering applying for membership in the alliance. Dmitri A. Medvedev, Russia’s former president and prime minister, said Moscow would be forced to “seriously strengthen” its defenses in the Baltics if the two countries were to join.
“The surrounding forces draw in closer, tighten the flanks and then methodically destroy” those trapped inside with artillery, he said, recalling a strategy that nearly cost him his life.
designated a single theater commander, Gen. Aleksandr V. Dvornikov, a former commander of the Russian army in Syria known for brutal tactics there.
And the fight in the east will begin closer to supply lines stretching back to the Russian border; that could be key for a mechanized Russian army advancing in a major conventional assault across the countryside.
“They are now prepared to fight the war that they really want,” the retired Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, a former NATO supreme allied commander for Europe, said of the Russians. “They want to meet force on force in open fields and go at it.”
Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, Ukraine; Eric Schmitt from Washington; Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkiv, Ukraine; and Michael Schwirtz from Lviv, Ukraine.
President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia said on Tuesday that peace talks with Ukraine had reached a “dead end” and he falsely called the evidence of Russian atrocities in a Kyiv suburb “fake,” using his first extended remarks about the war in nearly a month to insist that Russia would persist in its invasion.
Speaking at a news conference at a newly built spaceport in Russia’s Far East, Mr. Putin said that Ukraine’s negotiating position at the talks, last held in Istanbul two weeks ago, was unacceptable. He pledged that Russia’s “military operation will continue until its full completion.”
But the operation’s goals, he said, centered on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russia separatists have been fighting since 2014. It was the first time that Mr. Putin himself had effectively defined a more limited aim for the war, focusing on control of the Donbas — and not all of Ukraine, which Mr. Putin and his subordinates have said should not even be an independent country.
“We will act rhythmically and calmly, according to the plan that was initially proposed by the general staff,” Mr. Putin said. “Our goal is to help the people who live in the Donbas, who feel their unbreakable bond with Russia.”
Just over a month ago, by contrast, Mr. Putin warned that Ukraine’s leaders risked “the future of Ukrainian statehood” by resisting the Russian invasion, which Kremlin military planners appeared to have mistakenly thought could be achieved with relative ease.
Still, Mr. Putin’s assertion of Russia’s more limited war aims in Ukraine cannot necessarily be taken at face value, and he may yet harbor an ultimate goal of taking control of the former Soviet republic. For months leading up to the Feb. 24 invasion, as Russian forces massed on Ukraine’s border, Russian officials insisted there were no plans to invade and that the buildup was merely a military exercise.
Ukrainian and Western officials have said they expect that Russia, having failed to seize the capital Kyiv and most other key cities in an invasion hampered by poor logistics, would soon mount an intense offensive in the Donbas, where the Russian military has been pouring in troops.
But almost seven weeks into the war, the Russians have yet to conquer Mariupol, the strategically important southern Donbas port that has come to symbolize the death and destruction wrought by the invaders so far. Western officials said they were evaluating unverified accounts that Russian forces may have dropped chemical weapons on a Mariupol steel mill that has become a bastion of Ukrainian army resistance. The use of chemical weapons is a war crime.
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, referring to the unverified accounts from Mariupol, said he took them “as seriously as possible.”
“Even during the Second World War, the Donbas did not see such cruelty in such a short period of time,” Mr. Zelensky said in a video released early Wednesday. “And from who? From Russian troops.”
Russian forces also have repeatedly fired missiles and artillery indiscriminately at civilian targets they have little or no hope of taking, including those in and around the eastern city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest. On Tuesday, New York Times journalists witnessed the aftermath of a Russian cluster munitions attack on a Kharkiv suburb that left a trail of casualties, craters and punctured roofs.
And the outside pressure on Mr. Putin continued to rise. On Tuesday evening, Ukraine’s security service said it had detained Viktor Medvedchuk, a pro-Russian oligarch and politician who is Mr. Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine, releasing a photo of him handcuffed and disheveled. President Biden took a new swipe at Mr. Putin, calling him a “dictator” who has committed “genocide,” and a U.S. official said the White House would soon announce new military assistance for Ukraine worth $750 million.
Mr. Putin’s appearance on Tuesday — coming after several weeks in which the public glimpsed the Russian leader mainly in Kremlin footage showing him holding meetings by videoconference — appeared intended to shore up domestic support for a war with no clear end in sight.
Marking Cosmonauts’ Day — the anniversary of the Soviet Cold War triumph in which Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — Mr. Putin used the new spaceport, the Vostochny Cosmodrome, as his stage.
He was accompanied to the spaceport by President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, Mr. Putin’s closest ally, an apparent reminder to Russians that they were not completely isolated in the war.
Mr. Putin parried a question from a Russian journalist about the atrocities in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha by retreating into his familiar arguments about Western “double standards.” He claimed that the world had been silent when the United States bombed Syria in the campaign against the Islamic State, and that Mr. Lukashenko had provided evidence that the scenes in Bucha were an orchestrated, British “provocation.”
“We discussed in detail this psychological special operation that the English carried out,” Mr. Lukashenko said in a news conference alongside Mr. Putin, referring to Bucha.
In fact, independent investigators, including journalists for The New York Times, have documented evidence of numerous execution-style killings, rapes and acts of torture against civilians in Bucha that had been carried out by Russian occupation troops before they retreated last month.
But inside Russia, Mr. Putin’s pronouncements are going increasingly unchallenged, with access to Facebook and Instagram and many independent news websites blocked, and a draconian wartime censorship law punishing any deviation from the Kremlin line with as much as 15 years in prison. While prices are rising and layoffs loom as Western companies pull out of Russia, there has been no sign yet of widespread public discontent, and pollsters see significant public support for the war.
It was the alliance of Western countries, Mr. Putin insisted, that would soon feel the political backlash from the economic pain wrought by the sanctions, as evidenced by rising prices for food and fuel. European countries, in particular, had shown yet again that they were collectively acting as a “poodle” of the United States, he said.
“They always miscalculate, not understanding that in difficult conditions, the Russian people always unite,” Mr. Putin said.
Ever since he appeared before tens of thousands at a Moscow stadium on March 18, Mr. Putin’s public appearances have been limited to brief clips showing him meeting with government officials, mostly by video link, in which he does not comment on the peace talks or the war. Instead, he lets his Defense Ministry and other officials do the talking.
Mr. Putin emerged from his cocoon on Monday for an off-camera meeting at his residence outside Moscow with Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria, the first Western leader to visit with him since the Feb. 24 invasion. Mr. Nehammer said the session left him convinced that Mr. Putin was planning a large and violent military assault on the Donbas.
On Tuesday, Mr. Putin arrived in the Amur Region of Russia’s Far East and was shown in video released by the Kremlin chatting informally with workers at the Vostochny Cosmodrome, a sprawling facility that has been plagued by construction delays and remains unfinished.
While a key initial thrust of Russia’s invasion ended in a retreat, Mr. Putin insisted on Tuesday — as he did in the first weeks of the war — that the plan for what he calls the “special military operation” had not been altered. And he argued that what he called the West’s economic “blitzkrieg” to humble Russia had failed, pointing back to Soviet achievements in the space race as evidence that Russians could thrive despite sanctions.
Mr. Putin said Russia would move ahead with its lunar program, which includes a moon lander scheduled to be launched this year. And in a nod to Belarus’s status as Russia’s key ally in the war, Mr. Putin promised to send a Belarusian cosmonaut into space as early as next year.
“We are not going to isolate ourselves, and it is generally impossible to isolate anyone in the modern world, and most certainly not as huge a country as Russia,” Mr. Putin said.
Western countries have promised to continue to strengthen sanctions against Russia, with Europe increasingly discussing limits on Russian energy imports and more international businesses quitting Russia entirely. On Tuesday, Nokia, the Finnish telecommunications giant, joined its Swedish rival Ericsson in leaving Russia, portending new problems for the country’s internal communications.
Mr. Putin offered no hint on Tuesday that he was prepared to make peace before assaulting Ukrainian troops in the Donbas, which Western officials fear could be the most violent phase of the war so far. He insisted, as he has before, that Russia had no choice but to invade, alleging that the West was turning the country into an “anti-Russian bridgehead.”
“What is happening in Ukraine is a tragedy,” Mr. Putin said. “They just didn’t leave us a choice. There was no choice.”
Reporting was contributed by Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak from Babai, Ukraine; Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul; Marc Santora from Warsaw; and Shashank Bengali and Megan Specia from London.
BRUSSELS — Western nations on Thursday escalated their pressure on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, with the European Union approving a ban on Russian coal and the United States moving to strip Russia’s trading privileges and prohibit its energy sales in the American market.
The new punishments came as the United Nations General Assembly took a symbolically important vote to penalize Russia by suspending it from the Human Rights Council, the 47-member U.N. body that can investigate rights abuses. Western diplomats called the suspension a barometer of global outrage over the war and the growing evidence of atrocities committed by Russian forces.
That evidence includes newly revealed radio transmissions intercepted by German intelligence in which Russian forces discussed carrying out indiscriminate killings north of Kyiv, the capital, according to two officials briefed on an intelligence report. Russia has denied any responsibility for atrocities.
Together, the steps announced Thursday represented a significant increase in efforts led by Western nations to isolate and inflict greater economic pain on Russia as its troops regroup for a wave of attacks in eastern Ukraine, prompting urgent calls by Ukrainian officials for civilians there to flee.
“These next few days may be your last chance to leave!” the regional governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Haidai, declared in a video on Facebook. “The enemy is trying to cut off all possible ways to leave. Do not delay — evacuate.”
But the Western penalties were unlikely to persuade Russia to stop the war, and they revealed how the allies were trying to minimize their own economic pain and prevent themselves from becoming entangled in a direct armed conflict with Moscow.
In some ways, the efforts underscored internal tensions among Russia’s critics over how best to manage the next stage of the conflict, which has created the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. The war is also indirectly worsening humanitarian and economic problems far from Ukraine, including rising food and energy prices that are exacerbating hunger and inflation, particularly in developing nations.
It took two days of protracted talks in Brussels for the European Union to approve a fifth round of sanctions against Russia that included its first ban on a Russian energy source, coal. But the measures were softened by several caveats, highlighting Europe’s diminishing appetite to absorb further economic fallout from the war.
The ban would be phased in over four months, instead of three as originally proposed, according to E.U. diplomats. Germany had been pushing for a longer transition period to wind down existing contracts, even though Russian coal is easier to replace with purchases from other suppliers, compared with oil and gas.
European diplomats also agreed to ban Russian-flagged vessels from E.U. ports, block trucks from Russia and its ally, Belarus, from E.U. roads, and stop the import of Russian seafood, cement, wood and liquor and the export to Russia of quantum computers and advanced semiconductors.
Ukrainian officials had urged Western nations to go further and completely cut off purchases of Russian oil and gas, contending that existing sanctions would not cripple Russia’s economy quickly or severely enough to affect President Vladimir V. Putin’s campaign to subjugate Ukraine by force.
“As long as the West continues buying Russian gas and oil, it is supporting Ukraine with one hand while supporting the Russian war machine with the other hand,” Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said Thursday at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where he urged members of the alliance to accelerate promised help to Ukraine’s outgunned military.
The NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said the alliance would “further strengthen and sustain our support to Ukraine, so that Ukraine prevails in the face of Russia’s invasion.” But he did not offer details.
At the United Nations, the General Assembly’s resolution suspending Russia from the Human Rights Council,a step advocated by the United States and its allies, was the strongest measure the organization has taken to castigate the Kremlin.
Although the decision carries little practical impact, Russia’s suspension, approved on a 93 to 24 vote, with 58 countries abstaining, was still a diplomatic slap that Russia, one of the United Nations’ founding members, had hoped to avoid.
“The country that’s perpetrating gross and systematic violations of human rights should not sit on a body whose job it is to protect those rights,” Antony J. Blinken, the secretary of state, said at NATO headquarters.
Russia, which resigned its seat on the Human Rights Council in protest, denounced the vote as “an attempt by the U.S. to maintain its domination and total control” and to “use human rights colonialism in international relations.”
China, Cuba, North Korea, Iran, Syria and Vietnam were among the countries that joined Russia in opposing the measure, while India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico were among those that abstained. Some of those countries argued the move could worsen the war, and called for further investigation of reports of Russian atrocities.
The last country to lose its seat on the panel was Libya in 2011, after President Moammar al-Qaddafi launched a ferocious crackdown on antigovernment protesters.
Russia remains one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council with a veto power that it has already used to block a resolution calling on it to stop the war and withdraw its forces.
As U.N. members were deliberating, the United States Senate voted unanimously to strip Moscow of its preferential trade status and to ban the import of Russian energy into the United States. The legislation would allow the United States to impose higher tariffs on Russian goods. Russian energy, however, represents only a small fraction of American imports, and Moscow is already having trouble exporting its oil.
The House approved the bills later on Thursday, sending them to President Biden, who was expected to sign them.
The latest efforts to punish Russia over the Feb. 24 invasion were energized partly by international outrage over the discovery of many dead civilians by Ukrainian soldiers who reclaimed areas north of Kyiv that had been vacated by retreating Russian forces.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has said hundreds of bodies including children were found, many of them in the suburb of Bucha, and that many victims had been bound, tortured and shot in the head.
Mr. Kuleba, Ukraine’s foreign minister, was asked at NATO headquarters about reports of atrocities that may have been committed by Ukrainian troops.
He said he had heard about, but not seen, a video showing a group of Ukrainian soldiers killing captured Russian troops outside a village west of Kyiv. The video has been verified by The New York Times.
Mr. Kuleba said his country’s military observes the rules of warfare and would investigate any “isolated incidents” of atrocities.
“You don’t understand how it feels that Russian soldiers rape children,” he said. “This is not an excuse to those who violate the rules of warfare on either side of the front line. But there are some things which you simply can’t understand. I’m sorry.”
Mr. Blinken spoke with disgust about the atrocities attributed to Russian soldiers, saying “the sickening images and accounts coming out of Bucha and other parts of Ukraine have only strengthened our collective resolve.”
“The revulsion against what the Russian government is doing is palpable,” he said.
Russia has described evidence of the Bucha killings by Russian forces — including satellite images verified by The New York Times that show bodies on streets while still under Russian occupation — as fabricated.
Mr. Kuleba said the expected Russian assaults on the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk made it more urgent that NATO members expedite delivery of weapons to help Ukraine defend itself.
“The discussion is not about the list of weapons,” Mr. Kuleba said. “The discussion is about the timeline. When do we get them?”
Mr. Blinken did not offer any new details on military assistance.
He noted that the United States had supplied Ukraine with arms for months, totaling more than $1.7 billion since Russia’s invasion began. That aid includes an additional $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles that the Biden administration approved for shipment this week.
Mr. Blinken expressed skepticism about the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, saying he had “heard nothing from the Russians suggesting that they’re serious” about a negotiated settlement.
The mayor of the eastern city of Sloviansk, Vadim Lyakh, said it was “preparing for the worst” and stocking bomb shelters and hospitals with medical supplies and food.
“We have been watching closely how the Russians have encircled and seized nearby cities like Mariupol and Izium,” he said referring to two Ukrainian cities devastated by Russian attacks. “It’s clear that these cities were not evacuated in time, but in Sloviansk we have some notice, and that’s why we are actively pushing people to leave.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkiv, Ukraine, Cora Engelbrecht and Megan Specia from Krakow, Poland, Ivan Nechepurenko from Istanbul, Catie Edmondson from Washington, Michael Crowley from Brussels, Farnaz Fassihi from New York and Nick Cumming-Bruce from Geneva.
WASHINGTON — As Russian troops retreat from northern Ukraine and focus operations on the country’s east and south, the Kremlin is struggling to scrape together enough combat-ready reinforcements to conduct a new phase of the war, according to American and other Western military and intelligence officials.
Moscow initially sent 75 percent of its main ground combat forces into the war in February, Pentagon officials said. But much of that army of more than 150,000 troops is now a spent force, after suffering logistics problems, flagging morale and devastating casualties inflicted by stiffer-than-expected Ukrainian resistance, military and intelligence officials say.
There are relatively few fresh Russian troops to fill the breach. Russia has withdrawn the forces — as many as 40,000 soldiers — it had arrayed around Kyiv and Chernihiv, two cities in the north, to rearm and resupply in Russia and neighboring Belarus before most likely repositioning them in eastern Ukraine in the next few weeks, U.S. officials say.
The Kremlin is also rushing to the east a mix of Russian mercenaries, Syrian fighters, new conscripts and regular Russian army troops from Georgia and easternmost Russia.
Whether this weakened but still very lethal Russian force can overcome its blunders of the first six weeks of combat and accomplish a narrower set of war aims in a smaller swath of the country remains an open question, senior U.S. officials and analysts said.
“Russia still has forces available to outnumber Ukraine’s, and Russia is now concentrating its military power on fewer lines of attack, but this does not mean that Russia will succeed in the east,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said on Monday.
“The next stage of this conflict may very well be protracted,” Mr. Sullivan said. He added that Russia would probably send “tens of thousands of soldiers to the front line in Ukraine’s east,” and continue to rain rockets, missiles and mortars on Kyiv, Odesa, Kharkiv, Lviv and other cities.
U.S. officials have based their assessments on satellite imagery, electronic intercepts, Ukrainian battlefield reports and other information, and those intelligence estimates have been backed up by independent analysts examining commercially available information.
Earlier U.S. intelligence assessments of the Russian government’s intent to attack Ukraine proved accurate, although some lawmakers said spy agencies overestimated the Russian military’s ability to advance quickly.
As the invasion faltered, U.S. and European officials have highlighted the Russian military’s errors and logistical problems, though they have cautioned that Moscow’s ability to regroup should not be underestimated.
The Ukrainian military has managed to reclaim territory around Kyiv and Chernihiv, attacking the Russians as they retreat; thwarted a ground attack against Odesa in the south and held on in Mariupol, the battered and besieged city on the Black Sea. Ukraine is now receiving T-72 battle tanks, infantry fighting vehicles and other heavy weapons — in addition to Javelin antitank and Stinger antiaircraft missiles — from the West.
Anticipating this next major phase of the war in the east, the Pentagon announced late Tuesday that it was sending $100 million worth of Javelin anti-tank missiles — roughly several hundred missiles from Pentagon stocks — to Ukraine, where the weapon has been very effective in destroying Russian tanks and other armored vehicles.
American and European officials believe that the Russian military’s shift in focus is aimed at correcting some of the mistakes that have led to its failure to overcome a Ukrainian army that is far stronger and savvier than Moscow initially assessed.
But the officials said it remained to be seen how effective Russia would be in building up its forces to renew its attack. And there are early signs that pulling Russian troops and mercenaries from Georgia, Syria and Libya could complicate the Kremlin’s priorities in those countries.
Some officials say Russia will try to go in with more heavy artillery. By focusing its forces in smaller geographic area, and moving them closer to supply routes into Russia, Western intelligence officials said, Russia hopes to avoid the logistics problems its troops suffered in their failed attack on Kyiv.
Other European intelligence officials predicted it would take Russian forces one to two weeks to regroup and refocus before they could press an attack in eastern Ukraine. Western officials said that President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was desperate for some kind of win by May 9, when Russia traditionally celebrates the end of World War II with a big Victory Day parade in Red Square.
“What we are seeing now is that the Kremlin is trying to achieve some kind of success on the ground to pretend there is a victory for its domestic audience by the 9th of May,” said Mikk Marran, the director general of the Estonian Foreign Intelligence Service.
Mr. Putin would like to consolidate control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine, and establish a land bridge to the Crimean Peninsula by early May, a senior Western intelligence official said.
Russia has already moved air assets to the east in preparation for the renewed attack on the heart of the Ukrainian military, and has increased aerial bombardment in that area in recent days, a European diplomat and other officials said.
“It’s a particularly dangerous scenario for the Ukrainians now, at least on paper,” said Alexander S. Vindman, an expert on Ukraine who became the chief witness in President Donald J. Trump’s first impeachment trial. “In reality, the Russians haven’t performed superbly well.Whether they could actually bring to bear their armor, their infantry, their artillery and air power in a concerted way to destroy larger Ukrainian formations is yet to be seen.”
Russian troops have been fighting in groups of a few hundred soldiers, rather than in the bigger and more effective formations of thousands of soldiers used in the past.
“We haven’t seen any indication that they have the ability to adapt,” said Mick Mulroy, a former senior Pentagon official and retired C.I.A. officer.
The number of Russian losses in the war so far remains unknown, though Western intelligence agencies estimate 7,000 to 10,000 killed and 20,000 to 30,000 wounded. Thousands more have been captured or are missing in action.
The Russian military, the Western and European officials said, has learned at least one major lesson from its failures: the need to concentrate forces, rather than spread them out.
But Moscow is trying to find additional forces, according to intelligence officials.
Russia’s best forces, its two airborne divisions and the First Guards Tank army, have suffered significant casualties and an erosion of combat power, and the military has scoured its army looking for reinforcements.
The British Defense Ministry and the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank that analyzes the Ukraine war, both reported on Tuesday that the Russian troops withdrawing from Kyiv and Chernihiv would not be fit for redeployment soon.
“The Russians have no ability to rebuild their destroyed vehicles and weapon systems because of foreign components, which they can no longer get,” said Maj. Gen. Michael S. Repass, a former commander of U.S. Special Operations forces in Europe who has been involved with Ukrainian defense matters since 2016.
Russian forces arriving from Abkhazia and South Ossetia, two secessionist statelets that broke away from Georgia during the 1990s and then expanded in 2008, have been conducting peacekeeping duties and are not combat ready, General Repass said.
Russia’s problems finding additional troops is in large measure why it has invited Syrian fighters, Chechens and Russian mercenaries to serve as reinforcements. But these additional forces number in the hundreds, not thousands, European intelligence officials said.
The Chechen force, one of the European intelligence officials said, is “clearly used to sow fear.” The Chechen units are not better fighters and have suffered high losses. But they have been used in urban combat situations and for “the dirtiest kind of work,” the official said.
Russian mercenaries with combat experience in Syria and Libya are gearing up to assume an increasingly active role in a phase of the war that Moscow now says is its top priority: fighting in the country’s east.
The number of mercenaries deployed to Ukraine from the Wagner Group, a private military force with ties to Mr. Putin, is expected to more than triple to at least 1,000 from the early days of the invasion, a senior American official said.
Wagner is also relocating artillery, air defenses and radar that it had used in Libya to Ukraine, the official said.
Moving mercenaries will “backfire because these are units that can’t be incorporated into the regular army, and we know that they are brutal violators of human rights which will only turn Ukrainian and world opinion further against Russia,” said Evelyn N. Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration.
Hundreds of Syrian fighters are also heading to Ukraine, effectively returning the favor to Moscow for its helping President Bashar al-Assad crush rebels in an 11-year civil war.
A contingent of at least 300 Syrian soldiers has already arrived in Russia for training.
“They are bringing in fighters known for brutality in the hopes of breaking the Ukrainian will to fight,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. But, she added, any military gains there for Russia will depend on the willingness of the foreign fighters to fight.
“One of the difficult things about putting together a coalition of disparate interests is that it can be hard to make them an effective fighting force,” she said.
Finally, Mr. Putin recently signed a decree calling up 134,000 conscripts. It will take months to train the recruits, though Moscow could opt to rush them straight to the front lines with little or no instruction, officials said.
“Russia is short on troops and is looking to get manpower where they can,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Va. “They are not well placed for a prolonged war against Ukraine.”
KYIV, Ukraine — The Israeli government rejected requests from Ukraine and Estonia in recent years to purchase and use Pegasus — the powerful spyware tool — to hack Russian mobile phone numbers, according to people with knowledge of the discussions.
Israel feared that selling the cyberweapon to adversaries of Russia would damage Israel’s relationship with the Kremlin, they said.
Both Ukraine and Estonia had hoped to buy Pegasus to gain access to Russian phones, presumably as part of intelligence operations targeting their increasingly menacing neighbor in the years before Russia carried out its invasion of Ukraine.
But Israel’s Ministry of Defense refused to grant licenses to NSO Group, the company that makes Pegasus, to sell to Estonia and Ukraine if the goal of those nations was to use the weapon against Russia. The decisions came after years of Israel providing licenses to foreign governments that used the spyware as a tool of domestic repression.
Pegasus is a so-called zero-click hacking tool, meaning that it can stealthily and remotely extract everything from a target’s mobile phone, including photos, contacts, messages and video recordings, without the user having to click on a phishing link to give Pegasus remote access. It can also turn the mobile phone into a tracking and secret recording device, allowing the phone to spy on its owner.
In the case of Ukraine, the requests for Pegasus go back several years. Since the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, the country has increasingly seen itself as a direct target of Russian aggression and espionage. Ukrainian officials have sought Israeli defense equipment to counter the Russian threat, but Israel has imposed a near-total embargo on selling weapons, including Pegasus, to Ukraine.
In the Estonian case, negotiations to purchase Pegasus began in 2018, and Israel at first authorized Estonia to have the system, apparently unaware that Estonia planned to use the system to attack Russian phones. The Estonian government made a large down payment on the $30 million it had pledged for the system.
The following year, however, a senior Russian defense official contacted Israel security agencies to notify them that Russia had learned of Estonia’s plans to use Pegasus against Russia. After a fierce debate among Israeli officials, Israel’s Ministry of Defense blocked Estonia from using the spyware on any Russian mobile numbers worldwide.
Israel’s relationship with Russia has come under close scrutiny since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began several weeks ago, and Ukrainian officials have publicly called out Israel’s government for offering only limited support to Ukraine’s embattled government and bowing to Russian pressure.
During a virtual speech to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine criticized Israel for not providing his country with the Iron Dome antimissile system and other defensive weapons, and for not joining other Western nations in imposing strict economic sanctions on Russia.
Invoking the Holocaust, Mr. Zelensky said that Russia’s war was aimed at destroying the Ukrainian people just as the Nazis had wanted destruction for the Jewish people. Mr. Zelensky, who is Jewish, said “mediation can be between states, but not between good and evil.”
The New York Times reported last month that Israeli officials in August rejected a request by a Ukrainian delegation to purchase Pegasus, at a time when Russian troops were massing at the Ukrainian border. On Wednesday morning, The Washington Post and The Guardian, part of a consortium of news organizations called The Pegasus Project, reported that these discussions dated back to 2019, and first reported that Israel had blocked Estonia’s efforts to obtain Pegasus.
A senior Ukrainian official familiar with attempts to acquire the Pegasus system said that Ukrainian intelligence officials were disappointed when Israel declined to allow Ukraine to purchase the system, which could have proved critical for monitoring Russian military programs and assessing the country’s foreign policy goals.
The official said Ukraine’s view was that Israel, in making decisions about licensing Pegasus, gave more weight to a government’s relationship with the Kremlin than its human rights record.
Representatives of the Ukrainian embassy in Washington and the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declined to comment. In a statement, NSO said the company “can’t refer to alleged clients and won’t refer to hearsay and political innuendo.”
Both Ukraine and Estonia were once part of the Soviet Union, and since then have had to live in the long shadow of Russia’s military. Estonia is a member of NATO.
Russia plays a powerful role throughout the Middle East, particularly in Syria, and Israel is wary of crossing Moscow on critical security issues. In particular, Russia has generally allowed Israel to strike Iranian and Lebanese targets inside Syria — raids the Israeli military sees as essential to stemming the flow of arms that Iran sends to proxy forces stationed close to Israel’s northern border.
Israel’s government has long seen Pegasus as a critical tool for its foreign policy. A New York Times Magazine article this year revealed how, for more than a decade, Israel has made strategic decisions about which countries it allows to obtain licenses for Pegasus, and which countries to withhold them from.
Israel’s government has authorized Pegasus to be purchased by authoritarian governments, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, that have used the weapon to spy on dissidents, human rights activists and journalists in those countries. Democratically elected leaders in India, Hungary, Mexico, Panama and other countries also abused Pegasus to spy on their political opponents.
Israel has used the tool as a bargaining chip in diplomatic negotiations, most notably in the secret talks that led to the so-called Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and several of its historic Arab adversaries.
“Policy decisions regarding export controls, take into account security and strategic considerations, which include adherence to international arrangements,” the Israeli defense ministry said in a statement in response to questions from The Times. “As a matter of policy, the State of Israel approves the export of cyber products exclusively to governmental entities, for lawful use, and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counter terrorism, under end use/end user declarations provided by the acquiring government.”
Since NSO first sold Pegasus to the government of Mexico more than a decade ago, the spyware has been used by dozens of countries to track criminals, terrorists and drug traffickers. But the abuse of the tool has also been extensive, from Saudi Arabia’s use of Pegasus as part of a brutal crackdown on dissents inside the kingdom, to Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary authorizing his intelligence and law enforcement services to deploy the spyware against his political opponents.
Last November, the Biden administration put NSO and another Israeli cyberfirm on a “blacklist” of firms that are barred from doing business with American companies. The Commerce Department said the companies’ tools “have enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent.”
Ronen Bergman reported from Kyiv, and Mark Mazzetti from Washington.