War in Ukraine: Russian forces hit a shelter in Mariupol

Published March 20, 2022 at 9:06 AM EDT
Ukrainians in Lviv show support for the residents and defenders of the southern city of Mariupol on Saturday.
Alexey Furman
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Ukrainians in Lviv show support for the residents and defenders of the southern city of Mariupol on Saturday.

Ukrainian officials say Russian troops bombed an art school in the besieged city of Mariupol on Sunday. Authorities said 400 people had taken shelter there. It's unclear how many may have been wounded or killed in the strike. Ukrainian leaders are worried the port city, situated in the southern part of the country, could fall within days — if not sooner.

Here's more context to understand Ukraine and the impact of the invasion:

Follow the latest developments.

world response

Slovenia will send its ambassador or chargé d'affaires back to Ukraine

Posted March 20, 2022 at 4:28 PM EDT
The Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša, arrives for a special meeting of European Council on February 24, 2022, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Nicolas Maeterlinck
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AFP via Getty Images
The prime minister of Slovenia, Janez Janša, arrives for a special meeting of European Council on Feb. 24 after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša tells NPR he will send his country’s ambassador or chargé d'affaires back to Ukraine within one week and that his government is also trying to persuade the European Union to send EU ambassadors back as well.

Janša, along with the prime ministers of Poland and the Czech Republic, met in person with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy last week in a display of support for the besieged country.

“It showed they’re not abandoned,” Janša said in an interview on All Things Considered, “that we stand by them not only with words and distant help, but that we believe they will survive, they will win and that we count on them.”

Janša believes the EU should offer Ukraine a fast-track membership — Slovenia has been an EU member since 2004 — and says the bloc could create a mechanism to quickly grant membership if it wanted to.

He said the European Council should realize “that this is not time as usual, but there is a war going on, that people are dying there, and we need to take fast-track for them.”

Janša said the European Council would continue the discussion in its next meeting this week.

In 2014, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abruptly announced he would refuse to sign an association agreement with the European Union, sparking a major protest movement across the country and the eventual removal of Yanukovych from power.

Zelenskyy, the current president, signed an application for membership in the EU in February, several days into the Russian invasion.

Casualties

More than 900 civilians have died in Ukraine. The true number is likely much higher

Posted March 20, 2022 at 3:45 PM EDT
A local resident collects the belongings out of his apartment in Kyiv on March 20, 2022 in a five-story residential building that partially collapsed after a shelling by Russian troops.
Sergei Supinsky
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AFP via Getty Images
A local resident collects the belongings out of his apartment in Kyiv on Sunday in a five-story residential building that partially collapsed after a shelling by Russian troops.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights says 902 civilians have been killed and another 1,459 have been wounded so far in the war in Ukraine. The office warned that the actual number is likely “considerably higher.”

Those casualties occurred between Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, and Saturday at midnight local time, as Russia’s military continued bombing and assaulting cities.

Most of the injuries and deaths were caused by “explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes,” OHCHR said.

992 of the casualties occurred in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in Ukraine’s east, which are partially controlled by separatist rebels backed by Moscow.

OHCHR said there are likely more civilian casualties than it has officially recorded, especially stemming from intense fighting in recent days.

The Kremlin has denied targeting civilians during its invasion.

Diplomacy

Zelenskyy compares Russia’s invasion to Holocaust in a plea to Israel for support

Posted March 20, 2022 at 2:54 PM EDT
Demonstrators gather at Habima Square in the centre of Israel's Mediterranean coastal city of Tel Aviv on March 20, 2022 to attend a televised video address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Jack Guez
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AFP via Getty Images
Demonstrators gather at Habima Square in Tel Aviv on Sunday to attend a televised video address by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Israel to do more to help Ukraine during a speech to Israeli lawmakers on Sunday, voicing his impatience with Israel as it mediates negotiations between Russia and Ukraine.

In a nine-minute live video address to the lawmakers, Zelenskyy said, "You can mediate between countries, but not between evil and good."

He asked why Israel won't give Ukraine weapons or impose sanctions on Russia, and criticized Israel's limitations on accepting non-Jewish Ukrainian refugees.

Zelensky, who is Jewish, invoked the Holocaust in his plea.

“Ukrainians made their choice,” he said. “Eighty years ago, we saved Jews," he said. "The people of Israel, now you also have a choice.”

Zelenskyy's speech drew criticism from several Israeli lawmakers, mostly on the right wing, who said he overlooked the role some Ukrainians played in the Nazi genocide of Jews.

In response to the Ukrainian president's Holocaust reference, Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in a statement to NPR called it a “trivialization and distortion of the historical facts of the Holocaust.”

Biden's trip to Europe

Biden won’t travel to Ukraine during his upcoming trip to Europe

Posted March 20, 2022 at 2:39 PM EDT
President Joe Biden departs the White House in Washington, DC. on March 18, 2022.
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Getty Images North America
President Joe Biden departs the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 18, 2022.

President Biden will embark on a trip to Europe this week with a focus on the conflict in Ukraine, but he won't visit the war-torn country itself, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Sunday.

“The trip will be focused on continuing to rally the world in support of the Ukrainian people and against President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but there are no plans to travel into Ukraine,” Psaki said in a tweet.

The administration has leveled wide-ranging sanctions against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and sent military equipment and other aid to Ukraine’s military to help in its defense.

Last week, Biden called Russian President Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” over the conduct of the Russian military in Ukraine.

Australia bans the export of aluminum production materials to Russia

Posted March 20, 2022 at 2:24 PM EDT
Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers an address during the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, Scotland on Monday, Nov. 1, 2021.
Ian Forsyth
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Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers an address during the COP26 Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Nov. 1.

Australia’s government is banning the export of alumina and aluminum ores to Russia, as it moves to drive up the economic costs for the Kremlin over the decision to invade Ukraine.

Australian officials said the restrictions, which include a ban on bauxite, is designed to curtail Russia's ability to produce aluminum, which it in turn exports to buyers across a range of industries, including automotive and construction. It is also a vital ingredient in arms and munition manufacturing.

“[I]t's a critical input into weaponry, including guns, ammunition and missiles. Our decision here should say very clearly that to all countries, all companies operating in Australia, we are watching these things very, very carefully,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a press conference.

He added that the ban demonstrated Australia’s “absolute commitment to holding the Putin regime to account.”

According to the government, aluminum is a critical export for Russia, which relies on Australia for 20% of its alumina needs.

Morrison said a ship was due to arrive in Australia from Russia this week to pick up a shipment of alumina, a key component in aluminum smelting. “That boat is not going to Russia with our alumina.”

Australia also said it would provide additional support to help Ukraine’s government beat back the Russian invasion and care for those impacted by the violence.

The administration announced a $21 million support package of defensive military assistance for Ukraine’s military and another $30 million in emergency humanitarian aid.

Turkey's foreign minister says Ukraine and Russia are near agreement on 'critical' issues

Posted March 20, 2022 at 1:43 PM EDT
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart following their talks in Moscow on March 16, 2022.
Maxim Shemetov
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AFP via Getty Images
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu attends a joint press conference with his Russian counterpart following their talks in Moscow on March 16, 2022.

Turkey’s foreign minister says Ukrainian and Russian negotiators are getting close to agreement on several “critical” issues, in a sign that a ceasefire could be coming, according to a Reuters report on Sunday.

“We can say we are hopeful for a ceasefire if the sides do not take a step back from the current positions,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying in the Turkish daily Hurriyet.

Cavusoglu traveled to Russia and Ukraine last week for talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. Turkey is a NATO member and has been involved in negotiations between the warring countries.

The two sides are getting closer on four key issues, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin reportedly said on al Jazeera television.

Kalin said they included Russia’s demands that Ukraine pull back from its goal of joining NATO and that it demilitarize, as well as the protection of the Russian language in Ukraine and what President Vladimir Putin has called the “de-Nazification” of the Ukrainian government.

Previous rounds of talks between Ukraine and Russia have ended without an agreement.

Experts warn the war in Ukraine could reach a “stalemate” and drive up civilian deaths

Posted March 20, 2022 at 12:12 PM EDT
An eldery woman stands in front of a destroyed house after bombardments in the village of Krasylivka, east of Kyiv, on March 20, 2022, as Russian forces try to encircle the Ukranian capital.
Aris Messinis
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AFP via Getty Images
An eldery woman stands in front of a destroyed house after bombardments in the village of Krasylivka, east of Kyiv, on March 20, 2022, as Russian forces try to encircle the Ukranian capital.

The conflict in Ukraine is appearing to dissolve into a stalemate following the initial phase of the Russian offensive that failed to seize the capital Kyiv or install a new government, according to a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“Stalemate is not armistice or ceasefire,” the Institute for the Study of War said in its latest assessment of the fighting released on Saturday. “It is a condition in war in which each side conducts offensive operations that do not fundamentally alter the situation.”

If a stalemate does arise in Ukraine, the Russian military could continue to bomb and attack cities even as Ukrainian forces mounted successful counter-attacks against Russian troops, according to the report.

“The Russians could hope to break Ukrainians’ will to continue fighting under such circumstances by demonstrating Kyiv’s inability to expel Russian forces or stop their attacks even if the Russians are demonstrably unable to take Ukraine’s cities,” the assessment went on.

The assessment came as the U.K. government on Sunday said "Russian forces have made limited progress" in capturing cities across eastern Ukraine.

"It is likely Russia will continue to use its heavy firepower to support assaults on urban areas as it looks to limit its own already considerable losses, at the cost of further civilian casualties," according to the update from the Ministry of Defence.

Stalled negotiations have trapped civilians and blocked badly-needed aid, says a top UN official

Posted March 20, 2022 at 11:11 AM EDT
A woman holds her passport as she and other refugees stand in the line for free train tickets in the hall of the main railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on March 20. Millions have fled their homes in Ukraine since Russia's invasion.
WOJTEK RADWANSKI/AFP via Getty Images
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AFP
A woman holds her passport as she and other refugees stand in the line for free train tickets in the hall of the main railway station in Przemysl, Poland, on March 20. Millions have fled their homes in Ukraine since Russia's invasion.

As civilian casualties continue to mount in Ukraine, the United Nations refugee agency says negotiations over so-called humanitarian corridors out of areas with the worst fighting have proven “incredibly challenging.”

The corridors could provide safe passage for the evacuation of civilians and for the flow of humanitarian aid from agencies like UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross that is badly needed in besieged cities like Mariupol and Kharkiv, where indiscriminate Russian shelling has damaged or destroyed countless homes and buildings.

Thousands of people have been evacuated along evacuation corridors, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an overnight address, including some 4,000 from Mariupol on Saturday alone.

But getting both sides to agree to respect those corridors in negotiations with the U.N. has not always been successful, said Karolina Lindholm Billing, the UNHCR’s representative in Ukraine. Billing said the lack of any major breakthrough in talks between Russia, Ukraine and the U.N. is not only slowing the delivery of aid, but needlessly keeping thousands of civilians in harm's way.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘Yes, yes, we will hold the ceasefire during this period.’ There really has to also be guarantees on the details. Like, where are the positions of the troops at the time of the ceasefire start and end?” she said.

The challenges include getting both sides to agree to details of the ceasefires – like where troops will be stationed when the ceasefires begin and end. And there are practical concerns as well, she said. For example, roads that were once passable are now damaged or obstructed with mines or burned out vehicles.

“There is a readiness and a commitment to deliver aid, but the kind of basic security guarantees for our staff and for the goods that we are bringing must be ensured,” she said.

The need for aid in Ukraine is growing as the number of displaced people skyrockets. On Friday, the U.N. raised its estimates of internally displaced people by threefold, from about two million to more than six. Another 3.4 million people have left Ukraine altogether.

For a country where the pre-war population numbered roughly 43 million, the proportions are staggering, with more than half of Ukrainians directly affected by the violence.

“Their homes have been destroyed, damaged or not become inhabitable because they are in an area of active fighting. These are millions of people who need immediate shelter and who will need longer term shelter,” Billing said.

Zelenskyy continues to seek a diplomatic solution as civilian losses mount

Posted March 20, 2022 at 10:54 AM EDT
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, early Sunday, March 20, 2022.
AP
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Ukrainian Presidential Press Office
In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, early Sunday, March 20, 2022.

In his latest video message, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he is still seeking a “peaceful solution” to ending the war, which has now dragged on for more than three weeks and killed hundreds of civilians.

“I am sure you understand that negotiations are not easy and pleasant,” Zelenskyy said. “But they are needed. Because it's about life.”

He added that “every ruined family, every ruined house matters to us” and that, to Ukrainians, “for us a person is priceless.”

Separately, in an interview with CNN on Sunday, Zelenskyy said that he was prepared for direct talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I'm ready for negotiations with him. I was ready for the last two years. And I think that without negotiations we cannot end this war,” Zelenskyy said. “But if these attempts fail, that would mean that this is a third World War.”

Ukraine and Russia have held several rounds of negotiations, but none have ended with an agreement. Zelenskyy has said he is willing to give up Ukraine’s intent to join NATO in exchange for security guarantees, but Russia is pushing for the total demilitarization of Ukraine, the Associated Press reported.

Mariupol theater attack

Satellite images show the scale of the wreckage left by the attack on a Mariupol theater

Posted March 20, 2022 at 10:12 AM EDT

New satellite imagery is offering a clearer picture of the extent of the devastation caused by a Russian airstrike that hit a theater in the besieged city of Mariupol this past week. More than 1,300 people were believed to have been taking shelter inside the theater when the Russian attack hit on Wednesday. The images, provided by Maxar Technologies, show the word "children" written in Russian in large white letters on the ground in front of and behind the building. Ukrainian officials say at least 130 people have been rescued from the wreckage, but there have been no further updates on the search and rescue operation since Friday.

A view of the theater in Mariupol before last week's Russian attack.
Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies
A view of the theater in Mariupol before last week's Russian attack.
A view of the theater after the attack.
Satellite image ©2022 Maxar Technologies
A view of the theater after the attack.

Russia bombs a Mariupol art school sheltering 400 civilians, officials say

Posted March 20, 2022 at 9:56 AM EDT
A Ukrainian serviceman walks near the position he was guarding in Mariupol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 12, 2022.
Evgeniy Maloletka
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AP
A Ukrainian serviceman walks near the position he was guarding in Mariupol, Ukraine, Saturday, March 12, 2022.

Russian military forces bombed an art school in the besieged city of Mariupol, where around 400 people were hiding from the fighting, Ukrainian officials said on Sunday.

According to a post on Telegram by Mariupol’s city council, which was translated from Ukrainian, those taking refuge in the school included women, children and the elderly.

Local officials said the building was destroyed and that people were still under the rubble, though there was no official word on the number of casualties. Lesia Vasylenko, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, said on Twitter that 200 people were stuck under the rubble.

NPR could not independently confirm the details of the bombing.

The Russian military has encircled Mariupol, in the southern part of the country, and subjected it to relentless shelling, making it difficult for civilians to flee the violence.

Ukrainian officials say Russian forces are targeting civilians – such as those in the art school – despite claims by the Kremlin that they are only attacking military targets.

Last week a Russian air strike hit a Mariupol theater with at least 1,000 people sheltering inside.