U.S. President Joe Biden spoke Friday by phone with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the White House said, updating him on U.S. and ally moves to further raise the cost of war for Russia. Biden also highlighted “how the United States is continuing to surge security, humanitarian and economic assistance to Ukraine.”
Earlier Friday, Zelenskyy said in a broadcast video without elaborating that his military had reached a “strategic turning point.”
“It’s impossible to say how many days we will still need to free our land, but it is possible to say that we will do it because … we have reached a strategic turning point,” Zelenskyy said.
The United States, the European Union and the Group of Seven leading industrialized nations will suspend normal trade relations with Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine, they announced Friday.
Revoking Russia’s “most favored nation” trade status allows the U.S. and its allies to begin the process of raising tariffs on many Russian goods, further weakening Russia’s economy, which the International Monetary Fund predicts will slide into a “deep recession” this year.
Each country must change Russia’s trading status in accordance with its own national procedures, U.S. officials said. In the U.S., the move requires an act of Congress, and both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have signaled their support.
The U.S. and other allies previously imposed an unprecedented array of sanctions and export and banking restrictions designed to pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin into ending his war against Ukraine, the largest in Europe since World War II.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence, said Friday that Ukrainian forces were continuing to mount “an adaptive and nimble” defense that was frustrating Russian forces.
The official also told reporters the U.S. was seeing signs that Russian forces, and the Russian air force in particular, were displaying a “general risk aversion,” while also showing their inexperience.
“This is not a military that has great expeditionary capability and experience,” the official said. “Nothing on this scale.”
But the official also warned there were indications that Russian forces were learning from their early missteps, with some advanced elements now fighting in the northwestern suburbs of Kyiv, 15 kilometers from the city center.
Other major cities, like Mariupol and Chernihiv, are increasingly isolated.
And the U.S. confirmed Russia has begun targeting sites in western Ukraine — hitting airfields in Lutsk and Ivano-Frankovsk on Friday — part of a salvo of more than 800 missiles launched since the start of the invasion.
One day after Washington warned Moscow about what some observers described as war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said during a visit to Romania that Putin had shown no willingness to pursue a diplomatic solution to the conflict.
Putin disputed Harris’ claim Friday, saying without offering details that there had been positive developments in talks with Ukraine and that the negotiations “are now being held almost on a daily basis.”
Harris spoke in Bucharest as she met with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and other officials on the second stop of a three-day trip to Eastern Europe to discuss the worsening refugee crisis.
No progress was reported after high-level talks between the warring parties Thursday and U.S. officials said Russia was ”turning to a strategy of laying waste to population centers” in Ukraine.
“We’ve seen very credible reports of deliberate attacks on civilians, which would under the Geneva Conventions constitute a war crime,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price, though he did not specifically accuse Russia of committing such crimes.
Russia has denied targeting civilians in its invasion of Ukraine.
War crime allegations
Harris said in Poland earlier this week that she supported a U.N. inquiry into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that would look at “all alleged rights violations and abuses, and related crimes.”
“Absolutely there should be an investigation, and we should all be watching,” the vice president said before a meeting in Warsaw with Polish President Andrzej Duda in a show of support for NATO’s allies in Eastern Europe.
Harris’ comments came one day after a Russian airstrike on a children’s hospital with a maternity ward in Mariupol killed at least three people, including a child, according to Ukrainian officials.
Zelenskyy called the hospital attack genocide and again called on NATO to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, declaring, “You have power, but you seem to be losing humanity.”
Russia called reports about and videos of the hospital bombing “fake news” and said the building had been taken over by Ukrainian troops.
Security Council meeting
Izumi Nakamitsu, U.N. representative for disarmament affairs, said at an emergency Security Council meeting Friday that the U.N. was “not aware” of biological or chemical weapons being developed in Ukraine with help from the U.S., as Russia had alleged, without evidence.
The U.S. and Ukraine have denied Russia’s allegations.
Russia had requested the meeting after its production of biological weapons was the subject of questioning by the council during a session on Syria.
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told council members the Biden administration was “deeply concerned” about Russia’s allegations, saying they were part of a “false flag effort” to lay the groundwork for its own use of biological or chemical weapons in Ukraine.
A senior U.S. defense official said earlier Friday, “This harping … could be building some sort of pretext for a false flag event.”
National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.