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Polish, Baltic presidents meet Zelensky in Ukraine, pledge continued support and military aid

The presidents of four countries on Russia's doorstep visited Ukraine on Wednesday and underscored their support for the embattled country, where they saw heavily damaged buildings and demanded accountability for what they called war crimes carried out by Russian forces.

Russian forces gearing up for major offensive in eastern Donbas region as war nears end of 7th week

A woman looks at what remains of her house, which was destroyed by Russian forces' shelling in the outskirts of Chernihiv, Ukraine, Wednesday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

The latest:

  • Presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia meet Zelensky in Kyiv. 
  • OSCE report alleges 'clear patterns' of violations of international humanitarian law by Russian forces.
  • Russia claims more than 1,000 Ukrainian troops surrender in Mariupol.
  • Kremlin says Biden's description of Russian actions as 'genocide' are 'unacceptable.'
  • What questions do you have about Russia's invasion of Ukraine? Send an email to ask@cbc.ca.

The presidents of four countries on Russia's doorstep visited Ukraine on Wednesday and underscored their support for the embattled country, where they saw heavily damaged buildings and demanded accountability for what they called war crimes carried out by Russian forces.

The visit by the presidents of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia was a strong show of solidarity by the leaders of the countries on NATO's eastern flank, three of them — like Ukraine — once part of the Soviet Union. They travelled by train to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to meet Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky and visited Borodyanka, one of the towns near Kyiv where evidence of atrocities was found after Russian troops withdrew to focus on the country's east.

"The fight for Europe's future is happening here," Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said, calling for tougher sanctions, including against Russia's oil and gas shipments and all the country's banks.

Elsewhere, in one of the most crucial battles of the war, Russia said more than 1,000 Ukrainian troops had surrendered in the besieged port of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces have been holding out in pockets of the city. The information could not be verified.

Russia invaded on Feb. 24 with the goal, according to Western officials, of taking Kyiv, toppling the government and installing a Moscow-friendly regime. In the seven weeks since, the ground advance stalled and Russian forces lost potentially thousands of fighters — and the war has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee, rattled the world economy, threatened global food supplies and shattered Europe's post-Cold War balance.

A woman sits in front of a residential building damaged in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict, on a rainy day in the southern port city of Mariupol on Wednesday. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

More weapons for Ukraine

A day after he called Russia's actions in Ukraine "a genocide," U.S. President Joe Biden approved $800 million US in new military assistance to Ukraine, saying weapons from the West have sustained Ukraine's fight so far and "we cannot rest now." The weapons include artillery systems, armoured personnel carriers and helicopters.

Appearing alongside Zelensky in an ornate room in Kyiv's historic Mariinskyi Palace on Tuesday, the European leaders — Nauseda, Estonian President Alar Karis, Poland's Andrzej Duda and Egils Levits of Latvia — reiterated their commitments to supporting Ukraine politically and with transfers of military aid.

"We know this history. We know what Russian occupation means. We know what Russian terrorism means," Duda said, adding that those who committed war crimes as well as those who gave the orders should be held accountable.

"If someone sends aircraft, if someone sends troops to shell residential districts, kill civilians, murder them, this is not war," he said. "This is cruelty, this is banditry, this is terrorism."

WATCH | The challenges around proving genocide: 

Is Russia committing genocide?

4 months ago
Duration 2:43
Rebecca Hamilton, associate professor at American University, explains why making the legal determination of genocide can be challenging, even if the images and accounts out of Ukraine are consistent with war crimes.

Zelensky thanks Biden, 4 visiting presidents

Zelensky said he's "sincerely thankful" to the U.S. for the new round of military assistance.

In his daily late-night address to the nation, Zelensky also said he was thankful for Wednesday's visit by the presidents of Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia.

He said those leaders "have helped us from the first day, those who did not hesitate to give us weapons, those who did not doubt whether to impose sanctions."

The Ukrainian president also said work was continuing to clear tens of thousands of unexploded shells, mines and trip wires that were left behind in northern Ukraine by the retreating Russians.

He urged those returning to their homes in that region to be wary of any unfamiliar object and report it to the police.

From left, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda, Estonian President Alar Karis, Latvian President Egils Levits and Polish President Andrzej Duda stand with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Szmyhal in Kyiv on Wednesday. (Office of the President of the Republic of Lithuania/Reuters)

Putin defends assault on Ukraine

An expert report commissioned by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe found "clear patterns of [international humanitarian law] violations by the Russian forces in their conduct of hostilities." The report was written by experts selected by Ukraine and published Wednesday by the Vienna-based organization that promotes security and human rights.

The report said that there were also violations by Ukraine, but concluded those committed by Russia "are by far larger in scale and nature."

Ukraine has previously acknowledged that there could be "isolated incidents" of violations and has said it would investigate.

A girl stands by the door of a bunker in Severodonetsk, in Eastern Ukraine's Donbas region, on Wednesday as Russian troops intensified a campaign to take the strategic port city of Mariupol, part of an anticipated massive onslaught across Eastern Ukraine. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman cries after boarding a bus to leave Severodonetsk on Wednesday. The war has forced millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Putin, however, has denied his troops committed atrocities, and on Tuesday said that Moscow "had no other choice" but to invade and that the offensive aimed to protect people in parts of Eastern Ukraine and to "ensure Russia's own security." He vowed it would "continue until its full completion and the fulfilment of the tasks that have been set."

He insisted Russia's campaign was going as planned despite a major withdrawal after its forces failed to take the capital and suffered significant losses.

Following those setbacks, Russian troops are now gearing up for a major offensive in the eastern Donbas region, where Russian-allied separatists and Ukrainian forces have been fighting since 2014, and where Russia has recognized the separatists' claims of independence. Military strategists say Moscow believes local support, logistics and the terrain in the region favour its larger, better-armed military, potentially allowing Russia to finally turn the tide in its favour.

Battle for Mariupol continues

A key piece to that campaign is Mariupol, which lies in the Donbas and which the Russians have pummelled since nearly the start of the war. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak tweeted that the city's defenders were short of supplies but were "fighting under the bombs for each metre of the city."

PHOTOS | Inside the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol: 

Russian Defence Ministry spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 1,026 troops from the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade had surrendered in the city. It was unclear when this occurred or how many forces were still defending Mariupol.

According to the BBC, Aiden Aslin, a British man fighting in the Ukrainian military in Mariupol, called his mother and a friend to say he and his comrades were out of food, ammunition and other supplies and would surrender.

Russian state television on Wednesday broadcast footage that it said was from the port city showing dozens of men in camouflage outfits walking with their hands up and carrying others on stretchers or in chair holds. One man held a white flag on a staff in one hand and the handle of a stretcher in another. In the background was a tall industrial building with its windows shattered and its roof missing, identified by the broadcaster as the Iliich metalworks.

Another Zelensky adviser Oleksiy Arestovych did not comment on the surrender claim, but said in a post on Twitter that elements of the same brigade managed to link up with other Ukrainian forces in the city as a result of a "risky manoeuvre."

WATCH | Lviv hospital treating wounded civilians: 

Lviv hospital treating civilians wounded in Russian attacks

4 months ago
Duration 3:25
The United Nations says 2,558 civilians have been wounded since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. A hospital in Lviv is helping to treat civilians arriving from all over the country.

Claims Russia used poisonous substance

Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said the country is investigating a claim that a drone dropped a poisonous substance on the city. She said it was possible phosphorus munitions had been used in Mariupol.

Phosphorus munitions are not formally classed as chemical weapons but they cause horrendous burn, and deliberately firing phosphorus munitions into an enclosed space to expose people to fumes could breach the Chemical Weapons Convention, said Marc-Michael Blum, a former laboratory head at the Netherlands-based Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

WATCH | Expert on chemical weapon concerns: 

Difficult to determine if Russia used chemical weapons, expert says

4 months ago
Duration 5:28
Although it will be difficult to determine if Russia dropped a poisonous substance on Mariupol, if chemical weapons are being used, they will likely continue to be used and in larger quantities, said former U.S. assistant secretary of defence Andrew Weber.

Biden said it would be up to lawyers to decide if Russia's conduct met the international standard for genocide, but said "it sure seems that way to me."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that "there are official processes around determinations of genocide" but added of Biden's using the term, "I think it's absolutely right that more people … [are] talking and using the word genocide in terms of what Russia is doing and Vladimir Putin has done."

"The way they are targeting Ukrainian identity and culture, these are all things that are war crimes that Putin that is responsible for," Trudeau said.

French President Emmanuel Macron declined to use the word but said "it has been established that war crimes have been committed by the Russian army."

"We must find those responsible and bring them to justice," he told France-2 television.

On Wednesday, the Kremlin said it categorically disagreed with Biden's description of Russia's actions in Ukraine as genocide.

"We consider this kind of effort to distort the situation unacceptable," Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on a conference call with reporters.

A firefighter works to extinguish a fire after shelling in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Andrew Marienko/The Associated Press)

War crimes investigation

An International Criminal Court investigation into war crimes is underway in Ukraine, including into atrocities revealed after Moscow's retreat from the Kyiv area, where Ukrainian authorities say more than 720 people were killed, with 403 bodies found in the town of Bucha alone.

ICC prosecutor Karim Khan, who visited Bucha, said in a tweet Wednesday that Ukraine "is a crime scene" and the court must "pierce the fog of war" to determine what has occurred.

Residents in Yahidne, a village near the northern city of Chernihiv, said Russian troops forced them to stay for almost a month in the basement of a school, only allowing them outside to go to the toilet, cook on open fires — and bury those who died in a mass grave.

In one of the rooms, the residents wrote the names of those who perished during the ordeal — the list counted 18 people.

"An old man died near me and then his wife died next," said resident Valentyna Saroyan. "Then a man died who was lying there, then a woman sitting next to me.... She died as well. Another old man looked so healthy, he was doing exercises, but then he was sitting and fell. That was it."

In the Odesa region, Gov. Maksym Marchenko said forces struck the guided-missile cruiser Moskva — the flagship of Russia's Black Sea Fleet — with two missiles and caused "serious damage."

The Russian Defence Ministry confirmed the ship was damaged but not that it was hit by Ukraine — it said ammunition on board detonated as a result of a fire whose causes "were being established." The entire crew was evacuated from the ship, it added.

Bodies are exhumed and removed from a mass grave on the grounds of the St. Andrew and Pyervozvannoho All Saints church in Bucha, northwest of Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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