U.S. confirms Ukraine missile sunk warship, as Russia ramps up attacks

Reuters/Stringer/File photo
Russian missile cruiser Moskva is moored in the Ukrainian Black Sea port of Sevastopol, Ukraine May 10, 2013.

The Russian warship that sank this week in the Black Sea was hit by two Ukrainian-made anti-ship missiles, a senior U.S. defense official confirmed Friday, as relentless Russian attacks continued in the east. The southern port city of Mariupol, which has held out against weeks of bombardment, appeared close to falling to Russian ground forces.

Ukrainian satisfaction at Thursday’s successful sinking of the Moskva, a guided missile cruiser, was tempered by the situation in Mariupol, and a Russian warning that it would step up strikes on Ukraine’s capital. Blasts were reported outside Kyiv on Friday, with Russian forces saying in a statement that they fired missiles on a suburban factory that produces Ukrainian defense weapons, in retaliation for what it claimed were attempted Ukrainian assaults on border towns inside Russia.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continued to press Western leaders to increase their efforts to isolate Russia. In a recent phone call with President Joe Biden, Zelensky made a direct appeal for the United States to designate Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, one of the most powerful and far-reaching sanctions in the U.S. arsenal, The Washington Post first reported.

While Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart that he was willing to explore a range of proposals to exert greater pressure on Moscow, he did not commit to specific actions, according to people familiar with the conversation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive dialogue between the two leaders.

Even during the Cold War, Washington refrained from designating the Soviet Union in this manner, despite Moscow’s support for groups considered terrorist actors throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Such a measure could have a range of effects, including the imposition of economic penalties on dozens of other nations that continue to do business with Russia; the freezing of Moscow’s assets in the United States, including real estate; and the prohibition of a variety of dual-use exports.

The label, which requires a finding by the secretary of state, can be applied to any country that has “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism,” according to a State Department fact sheet. The list names four countries: North Korea, Cuba, Iran and Syria.

When Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked directly about U.S. support for the designation at a news conference last month, he said, “We are and we will look at everything.”

“Our focus first and foremost is on doing everything we can to help bring this war to a quick end, to stop the suffering of the Ukrainian people,” Blinken told reporters at the State Department.

The destruction of the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet by homegrown Ukrainian weapons represented a deeply symbolic victory for Ukraine, and a significant blow to Russia’s naval capacity.

The sinking removed a vessel Moscow will be unable to replace in the Ukraine theater, according to the U.S. defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. Russia has two other similar ships in its navy, but neither is based in the Black Sea. Turkey, which controls the entrance to the sea through the Dardanelles and Bosporus straits, has said that it will only allow ships through that already have a home port there.

Russia had previously acknowledged the sinking of the cruiser but said only that had been damaged by “heavy storms” and a fire.

Russia’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, claimed a further advance on Mariupol on Friday morning, saying its forces were now in full control of the city’s Ilyich Iron and Steel Works factory. Separately, Ukraine’s Azov battalion was said to be maintaining a tenuous hold on the Azovstal steel plant, one of the last bastions in the city outside of Russian control, where photographs from the scene Friday appeared to show smoke billowing from the heavily industrial area.

Both steel plans are owned by Metinvest, a company controlled by billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, Ukraine’s richest man.

“The city of Mariupol is no more,” Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of Ukraine’s Donetsk region told CNN. “The city of Mariupol has been wiped off the face of the earth by the Russian Federation.”

Earlier in the week, Martin Griffiths, the United Nations undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs, described Mariupol as “an epicenter of horror,” and renewed calls for safe evacuations of remaining civilians from the city. Its mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said that after mass evacuations and deaths, 50,000 to 70,000 people remained in Mariupol, whose prewar population was more than 400,000.

In a Thursday night video address marking the 50th day, Zelensky said defense of the country since Feb. 24, the day the Russian invasion began, was an “achievement for millions of Ukrainians.”

“You have all become heroes. All Ukrainian men and women who withstood and do not give up,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky also used the occasion to repeat his thanks to those unnamed world leaders he said have shown “great generosity” to Ukraine, and to continue his criticism of those who were “behaving as if they had no power.”

Biden this week announced an additional $800 million in U.S. weapons shipments to Ukraine, as Russia has been amassing troops, military vehicles and equipment on both sides of its border with eastern Ukraine in preparation for an assault on the country’s eastern Donbas region.

The Washington Post reported Thursday that Russia’s Foreign Ministry had sent a diplomatic note to the State Department warning of “unpredictable consequences” if the shipments did not stop. On Friday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed the note, and said that similar demarches on arms shipments to Ukraine were sent “to all countries,” Russia’s Interfax news agency reported.

In Kherson, a city about 400 miles south of Kyiv that was quickly seized by Russian forces during the first week after the invasion, at least 824 new graves were dug in a cemetery on the city’s outskirts between Feb. 28 and April 15, according to recent satellite imagery analyzed by London-based nonprofit Centre for Information Resilience (CIR).

CIR has been monitoring a number of gravesites and cemeteries in Russian-occupied areas or areas where Russian forces are close by, said Benjamin Strick, the director of investigations. “It’s scary to think of how [civilians] died and what else is happening in these areas,” Strick told The Post.

Similarly, the group recently spotted mass graves in a forest near Chernihiv, a regional capital. New graves continued to be dug even after the city was returned to Ukrainian control after weeks of Russian siege, according to the imagery by Planet Lab.

Other allegations of atrocities have been harder to confirm. Kyiv regional police chief Andriy Nyebytov contended on Friday that officials have found more than 900 dead civilians in the region of roughly 3 million people in the wake of Russia’s withdrawal of its ground troops in the area early this month.

Even as it has withdrawn from areas in the north, the Russian buildup continued in and around the Donbas region. Russian forces occupy territory just outside the city of Kharkiv, northwest of region, where regional governor Oleh Synegubov claimed Friday that they had shelled a residential area, killing seven people, including a 7-month-old baby.

In the same area, Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had information the Ukrainian military plans to launch a missile strike on refugees massing at a railway station in the town of Lozova, and then blame it on the Russian Army. A week ago, Russia allegedly launched a missile attack against the train station in the Donbas city of Kramatorsk that killed dozens of civilians. Russia has denied responsibility for the attack.

The Ukrainian authorities are plotting a provocation in Lozova “similar to the one in Kramatorsk to accuse servicemen of the Russian Federation of so-called war crimes,” said Mikhail Mizintsev, head of the Russian National Defense Control Center, according to Interfax.

New video footage and images from the Luhansk region, which is part of Donbas, show burned bodies among the rubble of a nursing home destroyed last month. Regional governor Serhiy Haidai said Friday that Russian troops had shelled homes and infrastructure in the area, killing two civilians.

Meanwhile, in Moscow, the Foreign Ministry warned of “negative consequences” for European security if Sweden and Finland follow through on indications they may want to join NATO.

“Why our Finnish and Swedish neighbors in the Baltic region should turn into a new frontier of confrontation between the NATO bloc and Russia is unclear,” Zakharova, the ministry spokeswoman, said. “The negative consequences for peace and stability in northern Europe are obvious.”

Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland, which shares an 830-mile land border with Russia, said her country would make a decision in the coming weeks. She made the comment after a visit Wednesday to Sweden, which is considering abandoning decades of military neutrality and applying for NATO membership.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Ukraine’s professed desire to join NATO was a security threat to Russia and one of the reasons for the invasion. Ukraine has since said it would abandon its hopes of membership in the alliance, but wanted “security guarantees” from other countries against Russian aggression in the future.

Zakharova acknowledged that “the choice is up to the authorities of Sweden and Finland.”

“But they should also understand the consequences of such a step for our bilateral relations and the European security architecture as a whole, which is now in a state of crisis,” Zakharova added.

Dmitry Medvedev, an ally of Putin who serves as deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, said Thursday that NATO expansion would lead Moscow to strengthen its forces, including nuclear forces, to “balance” military capability in the Baltic region.

Meanwhile, Russia’s telecom regulator Roskomnadzor blocked the Russian-language website of the Moscow Times Friday after the site published what authorities called a false report on riot police officers refusing to fight in Ukraine on April 4.

The Moscow Times said it had not been notified of the decision. Its English-language website remains online, and its Russian pages are accessible abroad and via VPN within Russia. Russia has blocked numerous foreign and domestic websites since its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are among those that have been barred.