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Russian airstrikes hit western Ukraine; Biden calls for removal of normal trade relations with Russia: Live updates

President Joe Biden on Friday called for a removal of normal trade relations with Russia, allowing for new tariffs on Russian imports in yet another effort to ratchet up sanctions over Moscow’s intensifying invasion of Ukraine.

Biden said the move will be another “crushing blow” to Russia’s economy.

“The free world is coming together to confront (Russian President Vladimir) Putin,” he said. “We’re going to continue to squeeze Putin.”

Biden’s proposal, which would require congressional approval, would put Moscow’s trade relationship with the U.S. in the same category as North Korea and Cuba.

European Union and G7 allies are also expected to act as the horrific toll on Ukrainians continues to mount, including attacks on health care works and facilities such as an airstrike on a maternity hospital that killed at least three people, including a child.

Wednesday, the top Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee said the nation must go beyond banning imports of Russian energy products, which Biden announced on Tuesday.

“When Congress returns to Washington next week, we will act decisively, in a bipartisan manner, to suspend permanent normal trade relations with Russia and Belarus,” said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass.

The change has support from both Democrats and Republicans. But the White House asked lawmakers earlier this week to wait until Biden could coordinate with allies.

Russia was the 20th largest supplier of imports to the U.S. in 2019, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. The top imports were oil and gas, platinum, iron and steel, fertilizers and inorganic chemicals.

Latest developments:

►The World Health Organization said Friday it verified 29 attacks on health care facilities, workers and ambulances in Ukraine, which have killed 12 people and injured 34. The U.N. human rights office confirmed 564 civilian fatalities and 982 civilian injuries in the conflict, which is likely an undercount, the office said.

►The U.K. on Friday expanded its economic sanctions against Russia, targeting the 386 Russian lawmakers who recognized two regions of eastern Ukraine as independent.

►Russia’s media regulator said Friday it was restricting access to Instagram. The regulator last week banned access to Facebook, which is owned by the same parent company, Meta.

►Congress passed $13.6 billion in humanitarian aid money for Ukraine and allies as part of a larger spending package that received bipartisan support in the Senate on Thursday.

►The U.N. refugee agency says more than 2.5 million Ukrainians have fled the country, over 1.4 million of them through Poland. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Thursday that about 100,000 people have fled over the last two days through evacuation corridors. 

►The Ukrainian nuclear regulator said Friday the electricity supply at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant has yet to be restored, Reuters reported. The news comes after the International Atomic Energy Agency said Thursday Ukrainian nuclear regulators informed the agency they had lost all contact with the Chernobyl plant. A Russian shelling also targeted a nuclear research facility in Kharkiv.

►Finnish President Sauli Niinistö said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday and informed Putin that Ukrainian President President Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom Niinistö also spoke Friday, was ready for direct talks with Putin.

Russian offensive targets western Ukraine

Russian airstrikes Friday hit near airports in western Ukraine, including one at Lutsk airfield that left two Ukrainian servicemen dead and six people wounded, according to the head of the surrounding Volyn region, Yuriy Pohulyayko.

Air raid alerts were also sent residents in Ivano-Frankivsk seeking shelters, Mayor Ruslan Martsinkiv said. The eastern city of Dnipro was also targeted for the first time. One person was killed as three strikes hit early Friday, Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Anton Heraschenko said.

The strikes came after Russian forces attacked the Ukrainian city Mariupol as civilians face increasingly dire conditions with scarce food, fuel, and electricity. Bodies are being buried in mass graves.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday the country had “reached a strategic turning point,” but did not clarify what he meant. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said there are “certain positive developments” in talks between the two countries.

UN Security Council to meet over Russian claims of US ‘military biological activities’

A diplomatic confrontation is expected in the U.N. Security Council on Friday. Russia requested the meeting to discuss its claims of “the military biological activities of the U.S. on the territory of Ukraine.”

The Biden administration has forcefully denied that assertion, saying Moscow could be laying the groundwork for its own attack. 

“This is exactly the kind of false flag effort we have warned Russia might initiate to justify a biological or chemical weapons attack,” Olivia Dalton, spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations said late Thursday. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also denied Russia’s accusation that Ukraine is preparing to attack with chemical or biological weapons, and he said the accusation itself was a bad sign.

“That worries me very much because we have often been convinced that if you want to know Russia’s plans, they are what Russia accuses others of,” he said in his nightly address to the nation.

Harris: High gas prices are ‘price to pay for democracy’

Vice President Kamala Harris on Thursday said the rise in inflation and gas prices are a “price to pay for democracy,” as recent energy sanctions on Russia are causing prices to rise globally.

“Gotta stand with your friends,” Harris said when asked how long Americans should brace for the high prices. “And as everybody knows, even in your personal life, being loyal to those friendships, based on common principles and values, sometimes it’s difficult. Often it ain’t easy, but that’s what the friendship is about, based on shared values.”

President Joe Biden earlier this week announced a ban on U.S. import of all Russian energy products. Biden during remarks Tuesday said that while the move would deal a “powerful blow to Putin’s war machine,” Americans will likely see gas prices rising.

Gas prices have reached all-time highs, with the national average at $4.33, according to AAA. 

Harris’ comments came after a bilateral meeting with Romania President Klaus Iohannis, where the two discussed concerns in the eastern flank over Russia’s war with Ukraine and the United States’ commitment to protecting NATO countries.

During the press conference, Harris noted that the United States in recent weeks sent a 1,000 member striker squadron “to stand in defense of our commitment to the NATO Alliance and the eastern flank.” She said the new striker squadron brings the total force of 2,000 American troops in the region.

Harris was also asked whether she believes that Russia has committed war crimes in Ukraine, to which she responded: “I’ll say it again, we are clear that any intentional attack or targeting of civilians is a war crime. Period.”

Downtown Kyiv hospital braces for carnage doctors fear will come

As Russian troops accumulate on the outskirts of Kyiv, Dr. Vitaliy Krylyuk said an uneasy calm has settled at the city’s largest downtown hospital.

Doctors at the Kyiv Hospital of Emergency Medicine are tending to conventional injuries such as car crashes and gunshot wounds. But Krylyuk, who spoked with USA TODAY over a video call, fears things will soon worsen if Russian missiles target the city or enemy troops close on the heart of Ukraine’s capital.

“The biggest problem we need to think about is a mass casualty situation,” said Krylyuk, who serves at the Ukrainian Scientific and Practical Center of Emergency and Disaster Medicine, a division of Ukraine’s Ministry of Health. “We’ve never had a mass casualty situation. We know this theoretically, not practically.”

Emergency planners have sought to address gaps that would emerge if the number of people with life-threatening wounds outstripped the hospital’s capacity to care for them. They sought to figure out which hospital entrance to direct ambulances to quickly get patients to hospital beds. Government planners have drafted documents on how to prioritize patients, ensure patients can breathe, secure blood transfusions or notify family members if a loved one is killed or wounded.

— Ken Alltucker 

Satellite photos show 40-mile Russian military convoy on the move

The 40-mile Russian military convoy that had been stalled outside Kyiv amid reports of food and fuel shortages moved into the forest and towns, new satellite images showed.

The line of vehicles, tanks and artillery was outside the Ukrainian capital but had been stalled for days before the new movement. The images from Maxar Technologies showed armored units near the Antonov Airport and vehicles in forests with towed howitzers in position to open fire, Maxar reported. 

Jack Watling, a research fellow at a British defense think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, said it appeared the convoy was moving west around the city toward the south as Russian forces likely aim for a “siege rather than assault” in Kyiv. The British defense ministry said Russian troops were likely trying to “reset and re-posture” with new operations in Kyiv probable.

Jewish orphanage evacuates 300 children in Ukraine
On a night two weeks ago in southwest Ukraine, children inside a Jewish orphanage felt the ground shake and watched lights eerily flicker. Bombs were falling just a mile from their home, shattering their safe world and sending them fleeing into the darkness.

The children, most in their pajamas and without shoes, rushed out of the orphanage and squeezed onto buses to make their way to the Moldova border as the Russian military launched its invasion of Ukraine.

The journey, which eventually took the children to Romania, left them in tears and confusion: Where would they call home now? Read more.

— Gabriela Miranda

State Department vows to hold Russians responsible for war crimes
The United States has seen “very credible reports” of deliberate attacks by Russians on Ukrainian civilians that would qualify as a war crime under international law, State Department spokesman Ned Price said Thursday.

That could include the recent assault on the maternity and children’s hospital complex that killed 3 people as well as strikes on schools, residential buildings, public buses and ambulances, he said.

Price said the U.S. will do everything possible to hold accountable every Russian political leader, military commander, and service member who participates in a war crime. “Criminal prosecutions are one possibility,” he added.

The U.S. has the ability to conduct its own in-depth investigations and will support the appropriate international investigations, Price said.

— Maureen Groppe

What to know about Brittney Griner, WNBA star detained in Russia

News broke last week that WNBA star Brittney Griner had been detained by Russian authorities and was facing drug-smuggling charges.

Like many WNBA stars, Griner has played overseas in the offseason to earn as much as four times the salary she gets playing for the Phoenix Mercury. She was returning to her team in Russia, UMMC Ekaterinburg, when she was allegedly found with vape cartridges in her carry-on luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport. The Russian Customs Service said the cartridges contained oil derived from cannabis, which could lead to a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

Friends, family and U.S. officials are trying to get Griner out of Russia, but diplomatic relations between the countries are said to be nearly non-existent since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is unknown if Griner’s stature as a well-known international sports figure from the U.S. will help or hurt her situation. Read more.

— Jenna Ortiz, Dana Scott, and Emily Horos, Arizona Republic

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