Polish, Baltic presidents visit Ukraine in show of support

Adam Schreck and Oleksandr Stashevskyi
The Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine — 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 traveled by train to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, to meet Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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 southern port of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces have been holding out in pockets of the city. A Ukrainian official denied the claim, which 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 one. But the ground advance slowly stalled and Russia lost potentially thousands of fighters in seven weeks of war. The conflict has killed untold numbers of Ukrainian civilians and forced millions more to flee. The fighting has also rattled the world economy, threatened global food supplies and shattered Europe’s post-Cold War balance.

A day after he called Russia’s actions in Ukraine “a genocide,” Biden approved $800 million 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, armored personnel carriers and helicopters.

‘Terrorism’: Appearing alongside Zelenskyy in an ornate room in Kyiv’s historical Mariinskyi Palace on Tuesday, the European leaders — Lithuanian President Gitanas 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.

Duda described what is happening not as war but as “terrorism.”

“Those who commit war crimes … they have to be brought to justice,” he continued, saying the accountability must extend not just to soldiers who committed atrocities but also “those who gave the orders,” Duda said. “We know this history. We know what Russian occupation means. We know what Russian terrorism means.”

An expert report commissioned by the Organization for Security and Cooperation 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.”

‘No other choice’: Russian President Vladimir Putin has denied his troops committed atrocities, and on Tuesday insisted Russia “had no other choice” but to invade. He said 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 fulfillment 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.

Russian troops are now gearing up for a major offensive in the eastern Donbas region, where Russia has recognized the separatists’ claims of independence. Military strategists say Moscow believes local support, logistics and the terrain in the region favor its larger, better-armed military.

A key piece of the Russian campaign is Mariupol, which lies in the Donbas and which the Russians have pummeled since nearly the start of the war.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said 1,026 troops from the Ukrainian 36th Marine Brigade had surrendered at a metals factory in the city. But Vadym Denysenko, adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, rejected the claim, telling Current Time TV channel “the battle over the seaport is still ongoing today.”