War in Ukraine live updates: A Ukrainian commander makes a desperate plea for evacuation from Mariupol

Published April 20, 2022 at 8:08 AM EDT
A parking lot is strewn with damaged cars and trucks.
Alexei Alexandrov
Damaged and burned vehicles are seen at a destroyed part of the Illich steel plant as smoke rises from another area of the plant in Mariupol on Tuesday. Civilians and soldiers are trapped inside.

Russian forces have surrounded a steel plant in the besieged city, with Ukrainian soldiers and civilians trapped inside. Ukrainian fighters have refused to surrender.

Here's what we're following today:

Wimbledon ban: Tennis officials have blocked Russian and Belarusian players from competing in June.

Heavy shelling in Kharkiv: The U.S. believes the assault is a prelude for larger attacks to come.

Shelling in Kharkiv: Russian attacks have intensified in Ukraine's second-largest city, and residents are told to take shelter.


A U.S. defense official says critical weaponry for Ukraine is arriving in the region

Posted April 20, 2022 at 1:38 PM EDT
Tanks lined up in a row.
Martin Meissner
German soldiers prepare tank howitzers for transport to Lithuania at the Bundeswehr army base in Munster, northern Germany, on Feb. 14, 2022. A senior U.S. defense official says more than a dozen howitzers the U.S. promised Ukraine are arriving in the region this week.

A senior U.S. defense official says the 18 howitzers the U.S. recently promised Ukraine are now arriving in the region.

Flights carrying the 155mm howitzers arrived yesterday in an unspecified country, and additional flights are expected within the next 24 hours. The U.S. is training Ukrainians (outside Ukraine) on how to use the big artillery guns, and the training is expected to take about a week.

With major battles expected in eastern Ukraine, the official said that “artillery is going to be critical in this fight.”

Also, the U.S. and its allies have provided spare aircraft parts that have allowed the Ukrainians to fix and return to service more than 20 warplanes in the past three weeks, the official said. Many are believed to be MiG-29s, a mainstay in the Ukrainian air force, but the official declined to give a breakdown.

Collector's edition

Ukranians wait in line for hours to buy commemorative Snake Island postage stamps

Posted April 20, 2022 at 12:52 PM EDT

One of the most popular rallying cries of the Ukrainian resistance emerged early in the war, when soldiers stationed on a Black Sea military outpost called Snake Island responded to Russian troops' calls to surrender with a few choice words: "Russian warship, go f*** yourself!"

The incident has been memorialized in a special postage stamp, which proud Ukrainians are now lining up en masse to buy, bring home and, in some cases, resell at a markup.

The Ukrainian Postal Service (Ukrposhta) held a postage stamp competition to commemorate the soldiers, who were initially believed to have been killed but were actually held captive and released in a prisoner swap in late March.

The winning design, as chosen by social media voters, was announced last month. It shows a lone Ukrainian soldier standing on shore, raising a middle finger at a looming gray warship in the water.

Artist Boris Groh saidhe was so impressed by the soldiers' refusal to surrender that he decided to submit an illustration to lift morale. He told the postal service that it took him three days to complete the sketch, but he could have done it in five hours if he hadn't been distracted by the news.

Ukrposhta announced last week that it had issued 1 million stamps and 20,000 envelopes.

"I am sure that Ukrainians and our friends from abroad will be pleased to receive letters with such a postage stamp," Igor Smelyansky, the general director of Ukrposhta, said at a ceremony last week at the main post office in Kyiv. "And today in this postal way we once again remind the invaders that they should immediately get off our land and follow their ship."

The stamp became an instant sensation, counting President Volodymyr Zelenskyy among its many fans.

Sharing a picture of people in line on Friday, Ukrposhta joked that it was probably the first time that lines for stamps were longer than those for the iPhone.

It announced Monday that — with nearly half a million stamps already sold — it will limit purchases to no more than six stamps and will cancel online orders, according to a translation from Canada's CTV News.

Smelyansky toldThe Guardian this week that 700,000 stamps are on sale across Ukraine, with 200,000 reserved for territories occupied by Russian troops. He said another 100,000 will be sold online, including overseas, starting Thursday. He doesn't plan to reprint them once they sell out.

CTV News said some people waited in line for upward of six hours to get their hands on the stamps. They sell in two denominations at $0.77 and $1.83 each — but some envelopes and stamp sheets are listed on eBay for $2,500 and more.

NPR's Tim Mak retweeted a photo from Atlantic Council fellow Vladislav Davidzon showing Odesa residents crowding into a post office, saying they they lined up for hours trying to get the stamps.

Mark MacKinnon, a reporter for The Globe and Mail, shared a picture of the long line outside the post office in Kyiv.

The Guardian shared a time-lapse video of hundreds of people lining up outside Kyiv's main post office on Tuesday.

The Ukrainian government said on Twitter that a set of stamps and envelopes signed by Smelyansky and Roman Gribov, the soldier who uttered the now-infamous phase, will be going up for auction online on Friday.

Bidding starts at the equivalent of $850, and the winner will receive the stamps in the mail after payment.


South Korea is facing criticism for denying Ukraine's request for more weapons

Posted April 20, 2022 at 11:01 AM EDT

The head of South Korea’s arms procurement agency defended his country’s rejection of Ukraine’s requests for weapons to fight off Russia’s invasion, despite Seoul’s ambitions as a global power and arms exporter.

"Even if we provide Ukraine with 100 K-2 tanks and 100 FA-50 fighters, they may be of little use," the Yonhap News Agency quoted Kang Eun-ho, the head of the Defense Acquisition Program Administration, as saying at a defense forum Wednesday, "because it would take months before they become able to actually operate them."

That did not deter Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from specifically requesting such military hardware, in a virtual address to South Korea’s parliament last week.

He also repeated an argument made last week by South Korea’s Defense Minister that selling Ukraine the weapons could affect his country’s military readiness.

But observers note that South Korea enjoys a robust advantage in conventional forces over its rival, North Korea, not to mention protection under the U.S.’s nuclear umbrella.

Nor did such concerns stop Seoul from selling the United Arab Emirates $3.5 billion worth of surface-to-air missiles, in a deal signed in January by South Korea’s President and the Emirati Prime Minister.

It was South Korea’s largest arms export deal to date. Kang Eun-ho told the forum that South Korea’s defense exports were the world’s fifth-largest last year.

Ukraine’s ambassador to South Korea, Dmytro Ponomarenko, reportedly planned to visit the manufacturer of those missiles, to see if they could sell Kyiv some, too. But the ambassador apparently canceled the visit, after South Korean media reported on it.

There are expectations that president-elect Yoon Suk Yeol, who takes office next month, will be more proactive in supporting Ukraine than the outgoing Moon Jae-in administration.

Then again, Yoon could face the same constraints as his predecessor, including the possible impact selling arms to Ukraine could have on South Korean corporations’operations in Russia.


Ukraine is one of the few former Soviet republics to realize democracy

Posted April 20, 2022 at 10:40 AM EDT

A new report shows that three decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, nations in the region are having mixed success in embracing democracy.

"Essentially, our report shows that democracy is losing ground to autocracy," says Michael Abramowitz, president of the think tank Freedom House, which released the report. "A big part of the story is, candidly, Vladimir Putin."

Abramowitz says that Putin has turned Russia from what had been a hopeful democracy into one of the most repressive governments in the world, and his influence is growing among the nations in the former Soviet bloc.

Freedom House finds that since the collapse, some former Soviet nations have become more democratic -- but most still have some version of the old power structures. About 10 out of the 29 countries in the region are true democracies today, says Abramowitz.

Abramowitz says that Ukraine had one of the most robust democracies in the region before Russian’s invasion.

"I think one of the major reasons that Vladimir Putin has invaded Ukraine is that he was scared about the presence of a strong democracy right on the Russian borders," says Abramowitz.

Click here to hear more from Abramowitz's interview with Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition.

Humanitarian crisis

The number of people fleeing Ukraine has surpassed 5 million

Posted April 20, 2022 at 10:33 AM EDT
A young girl wearing a pink heart-patterned backpack buries her face in a woman wearing a leather jacket and a backpack with a stuffed animal in it over her chest.
Wojtek Radwanski
AFP via Getty Images
A woman and a child, along with other refugees from Ukraine, wait in the ticket hall of the railway station in Przemysl, eastern Poland.

More than 5 million people have fled Ukraine in the nearly two months since Russia's full-fledged invasion began, according to a tracker from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Filippo Grandi, the U.N. refugee commissioner, confirmed the milestone on Twitter.

"They have left behind their homes and families. Many would do anything, and some even risk going back, to see their loved ones," he wrote. "But every new attack shatters their hopes. Only an end to the war can pave the way for rebuilding their lives."

The U.N. agency had initially estimated that 4 million Ukrainians would flee the conflict — a number that was exceeded at the end of March, just over a month after Russia first invaded.

Overall, more than 10 million Ukrainians have so far been displaced by the war.

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, told The Hill that 5 million refugees represents 11% of Ukraine's population, meaning nearly 1 in 8 people have fled the country.

"Reaching 5 million refugees is a grim milestone of the toll Putin’s aggression has taken on civilians," she wrote on Twitter. "With each day that passes, people who escape are even more vulnerable, having lived through months of conflict with no end in sight."

The vast majority of those who have fled the country — nearly 3 million — have gone to Poland, followed by other Eastern European countries like Romania and Hungary.

Some have made it to the U.S., including by traveling to Mexico's northern border and asking agents for admission on humanitarian grounds. The Biden administration has said the U.S. will accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, and is also granting temporary protection from deportation to thousands of Ukrainians already in the U.S.

Meanwhile, some refugees are already traveling back to Ukraine, despite warnings from officials that it's not yet safe to return. The Polish border service reported over the weekend that more people had crossed the border to Ukraine than fled into Poland for the first timesince the war began.


The standoff at Mariupol sprawling steel plant intensifies

Posted April 20, 2022 at 9:54 AM EDT
A huge metal complex can be seen from far away. It has smokestacks and cranes.
Pierre Crom
Getty Images
Ukrainian forces and civilians are holed up in the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

In the weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine, some of the most brutal images and stories of the war have been coming out of the southern port city of Mariupol.

Besieged for weeks and under heavy artillery fire, the city's situation for civilians has continued to deteriorate as food, water and medicine run scarce. Russian forces have now surrounded a steel plant in the city with Ukrainian soldiers and civilians inside.

"This could be the last appeal of our lives. We are probably facing our last days if not hours," local commander Serhiy Volynsky said in Ukrainian. "The enemy is outnumbering us 10 to 1."

The commander is pleading for extraction for the trapped civilians and soldiers. Russia says it now controls most of Mariupol and has told the Ukrainian fighters to surrender, but they have refused.

Russia's military issued a new ultimatum for Ukrainian soldiers inside the plant to surrender, on what it says are “humanitarian principles” reports, NPR reports.

The head of Russia’s National Defense Control Center, Mikhail Mizintsev, said soldiers who surrendered would be guaranteed “life, safety and medical treatment" under the Geneva Conventions.

Tim Mak is in Ukraine and joined Morning Edition with the latest. You can listen here. 🔊

City officials say 100,000 people are still trapped in the city, and officials have been working to secure humanitarian corridors to help civilians get out. A preliminary agreement was reached this morning by both sides to pull civilians out, but as Mak notes, agreements like this have fallen through in the past and some accuse Russia of targeting humanitarian corridors.

Russia has entered a new phase of the war and is concentrating most of their firepower in the east and south, which experts say could pose a challenge to Ukraine's military, which up until now has faced a more divided Russian assault, reports Mak. The Kremlin says the "liberation" of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine is now Russia's goal.

Analysts say this new offensive is sure to be a challenging time for soldiers and civilians on both sides of the conflict.

Follow more of Tim Mak's reporting here.

Sit, stay, save lives

Meet Patron, a bomb-sniffing Jack Russell terrier who has become a Ukrainian hero

Posted April 20, 2022 at 9:39 AM EDT

A tiny but mighty Jack Russell terrier has been saving lives in Ukraine and gaining fans around the world.

Two-year-old Patron works with State Emergency Service rescuers in the northern city of Chernihiv, where he sniffs out Russian bombs (in addition to warming laps, nipping sleeves and generally being a good boy).

In fact, he has helped neutralize nearly 90 explosive devices since the start of Russia's full-scale invasion, Ukrainian officials said last month.

"One day, Patron's story will be turned into a film, but for now, he is faithfully performing his professional duties," tweeted Ukraine's Center for Strategic Communications.

It also shared video clips of Patron on duty, wearing a protective vest and walking around with his snout to the dirt.

Patron has been featured on the SES Facebook page, which shared a different montage of him earlier this month riding in the car, sniffing devices laid out on the ground and posing for photos with rescue personnel.

He also appeared in a series of photos the agency posted on Tuesday, in which he can be seen examining debris in a field, posing on an armored vehicle and being held by a young child.

The post referred to him as "our pyrotechnic dog Patron, who is loved by both adults and children," according to an English translation.

Patron has indeed won hearts and admirers throughout Ukraine and beyond.

Earlier this week, the SES shared an album of more than a dozen illustrations of Patron submitted from fans across the country, writing that "our brave baby Patron has inspired an incredible number of gifted artists."

"It motivates not to give up no matter how hard it is, to keep the bar high and to fight with new strength, knowing how many people are still waiting for help and how many people believe in us," it wrote, according to Facebook's English translation. "Our Patron doesn't let his feet down either and sends his gratitude to everyone."

The paintings, drawings and cartoons depict a heroic Patron in his trademark vest. One shows him urinating on a Russian rocket, in another he's towering benevolently over a city skyline.

One particularly poignant drawing offers a split-screen view: Half is Patron at work in front of a charred high-rise, while the other half shows him standing in a grassy park next to a ball — a game of fetch that's been put on hold.

Other admirers have shared sketches and even knit plushies of Patron on social media.

Dogs have a long history of locating land mines, unexploded bombs and improvised devices during conflicts around the world, thanks to their keen sense of smell.

According to DailyPaws.com, the powerful nose, small size and high intelligence of Jack Russell terriers make Patron a prime candidate for the job.

International Dispatch
From Tallinn

Estonia's defense chief says the country won't let Russia take one inch

Posted April 20, 2022 at 8:50 AM EDT
A view looking down at buildings with red roofs against a blue cloudy sky.
Sean Gallup
Getty Images
Former Soviet republic Estonia, whose capital of Tallinn is shown in March 2017, is ready to respond to Russia if it launches any type of attack.

As Russia's war in Ukraine enters its second month, leaders from Eastern and Central Europe are thinking about what comes next.

Estonia's defense chief says the small Baltic nation is ready to respond immediately to a conventional or cyberattack.

Estonian Permanent Secretary Kusti Salm, the highest-ranking civilian defense official, says his country would not hesitate to strike back against a Russian attack on the Baltics, cyber or otherwise.

"We would ramp up our defenses, we would call up our reserves, we would weapon ourselves to the teeth," he says.

Some Russian officials have threatened to enter the Baltics, especially if Finland and Sweden join NATO. But Estonia, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in the 1990s, would not allow Russia to take one inch, he says. The response would be proportional, but unambiguous, he concluded.


Wimbledon bans Russian and Belarusian players — including No. 2 Medvedev

Updated April 20, 2022 at 11:51 AM EDT
Posted April 20, 2022 at 8:30 AM EDT
Daniil Medvedev, wearing a red, orange and blue tennis shirt, holds a racket while looking off-court.
Hector Vivas
Getty Images
Daniil Medvedev of Russia is pictured after winning a match at the Mexican Open in February. The No. 2-ranked men's tennis player in the world could be banned from Wimbledon as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Tennis officials have banned Russian and Belarusian players from competing at Wimbledon this year, citing the "unjustified and unprecedented military aggression" in Ukraine.

The All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) and the Committee of Management of The Championships announced Wednesday that they made the decision based on government guidance regarding sporting events and after considering their duties to the players, their community and the broader U.K. public.

"Given the profile of The Championships in the United Kingdom and around the world, it is our responsibility to play our part in the widespread efforts of Government, industry, sporting and creative institutions to limit Russia's global influence through the strongest means possible," they wrote.

Wimbledon, one of four tennis Grand Slam tournaments, is set to take place in London from June 27 to July 10. Organizers said in their statement that "if circumstances change materially" before then, they will consider and respond accordingly.

The move was not wholly unexpected: Sports industry site Sportico first reported the news on Tuesday, with British outlets including the Guardian and BBC saying an announcement would be imminent.

The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) — the governing body of tennis in Great Britain — also announced on Wednesday that it is joining the AELTC in banning Russian and Belarusian players at its events, so that British tennis can deliver "a consistent approach across all events over the course of the summer.

The ban makes Wimbledon one of the first tennis events to suspend players from the two countries since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, and excludes several highly ranked players from competition.

Those include men's world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev of Russia and women's world No. 4 Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. There are four Russian men in the top 30 — including two in the top 10 — and two Belarusian women in the top 20, the Guardian notes.

Athletes from Russia and Belarus have been allowed to remain on the ATP and WTA tours (just not playing under their countries' name or flag) and sign up to compete at the French Open, which begins on May 22.

They have been shunned by the tennis world in some other ways, however.

Russia was banned from defending its titles at two team events: the Davis Cup and last week's Billie Jean King Cup (at which the U.S. narrowly beat Ukraine in the qualifying round after a tie.) The WTA and ATP have suspended a combined event set to take place in Moscow this fall, and the International Tennis Federation also canceled its events in Russia.

The AELTC has reportedly been consulting with the U.K. government about whether to let Russia and Belarusian athletes compete in Wimbledon, which is the world's oldest tennis tournament and widely considered the most prestigious.

U.K. Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston said last month that "nobody flying the flag for Russia should be allowed or enabled" to play in it.

“But I think it needs to go beyond that, I think we need to have some assurance that they are not supporters of Vladimir Putin and we are considering what requirements we may need to get assurances along those lines," he added. "In short, would I be comfortable with a Russian athlete flying the flag of Russia? No.”

Several former and current Ukrainian players have also called for such a ban. Olga Savchuk, the captain of Ukraine’s Billie Jean King Cup team, told The New York Times that "it cannot just be a sanction against 90 percent of the Russian people and 10 percent not."

"It has to be even and I think it is collective guilt," she added.

However, not everyone is convinced. Steve Simon, head of the WTA, told the BBC last month that he believed players should not be penalized because of the "decisions of the authoritarian leadership."

He added that the WTA had never before banned athletes from participating on its tour as a result of their country's political positions, and that it would take something very significant for that to change.

"I'm hoping that we continue with the sanctions, we continue doing everything we can to get peace, but again these people are the innocent victims of that, and being isolated as a result of these decisions I don't think it's fair."

Several Russian players have notably protested the war on the world stage. A day after Russia first invaded, Andrey Rublev wrote "no war please" on one of the courtside cameras. Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Russia's top-ranked women's player, spoke out about the war in a since-deleted tweet in which she wrote that "personal ambitions or political motives cannot justify violence."

Medvedev has also called for peace. He said last month that he hoped to continue playing on the world stage.

"It's always tough to talk on this subject because I want to play tennis – play in different countries," he said, according to Eurosport. "I want to promote my sport, I want to promote what I'm doing in my country for sure, and right now the situation is that that is the only way I can play."


The U.S. describes fighting in the east as just a 'prelude' to larger attacks

Posted April 20, 2022 at 8:13 AM EDT
A soldier stands in a yard littered with branches and debris.
Alexei Alexandrov
An armed member of the Donetsk People's Republic militia walks past a building damaged during fighting in Mariupol last Wednesday. The fighting has been shifting to the east this week.

A senior U.S. defense official says the Pentagon is seeing "limited offensive operations" by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, which the U.S. views as a "prelude" for larger Russian attacks still to come.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russia's offensive in eastern Ukraine has begun, and Russian officials have made similar comments.

The U.S. official stressed he was not attempting to contradict these statements.

Rather, he says, the U.S. sees Russia doing two things: building up its forces in the east and conducting limited attacks in preparation for larger ones to come.

Russian forces are stepping up troop movements and artillery fire outside two eastern towns, Donetsk and Izium.

The U.S. believes Russia is trying to avoid the mistakes it made during its initial invasion, when it didn't have enough food, fuel and other supplies needed for an extended fight.

International Dispatch
From Kharkiv

Bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine's 2nd-biggest city, has intensified in recent days

Posted April 20, 2022 at 8:08 AM EDT
A destroyed car sits on a street in front of a damaged building with torn banners.
Sergey Bobok
AFP via Getty Images
Debris from a destroyed car litter the street at the scene of an explosion near a grocery store in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Monday.

Since the weekend, Ukraine's second-biggest city, Kharkiv, has been shelled incessantly by Russian forces. Officials say three civilians were killed on Tuesday.

The governor says that the shelling has intensified in the past few days and that residents should stay underground as much as possible.

Previous strikes on Kharkiv had been concentrated in the northern suburbs. But Russian troops are now lobbing shells and missiles closer to the center of the city.

Denis Parkhomenko, a 22-year-old programmer now living in a metro station near the center of the city, says that more than 50 days into this war, he can no longer tell whether things are getting better or worse.

"We just adapted," he says. "We just know what we must do."

Residents just know that when they hear the whizzing of the missiles and the pounding of the shells, they go underground.