Live updates: Russia to expel more American diplomats | National News

WASHINGTON — The U.S. State Department says Russia has begun the process of expelling several more diplomats from the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

The department said it received a list of diplomats on Wednesday who have been declared “persona non grata” by the Russian foreign ministry. It didn’t say how many diplomats were affected by the order, which generally results in the expulsion of those targeted within 72 hours.

The Russian foreign ministry summoned U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan on Monday to protest President Joe Biden’s description of Russian leader Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal” over the invasion of Ukraine. After that meeting, Russia warned that it was close to severing diplomatic relations with the United States, which would be an unprecedented move.

The State Department called Wednesday’s move “Russia’s latest unhelpful and unproductive step” in relations between the countries. It urged Russia “to end its unjustified expulsions of U.S. diplomats and staff.”

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— Ukraine’s president calls for a worldwide show of support on Thursday to mark one month since Russia invaded.

— The Biden administration has made a formal determination that Russian troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine

Biden has embarked on a trip to Europe as Russia’s war in Ukraine bogs down

— Russian Olympic athletes who participated in a pro-Putin rally are facing a backlash

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LVIV, Ukraine — Russian troops who occupy the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson seized one of the country’s most prominent theater directors “in a fascist manner” and took him to an unknown location, Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said.

Witnesses said nine Russian military vehicles pulled up to the home of Oleksandr Kniga early Wednesday and led him out. The Russians warned neighbors that if they came out of their homes, they would be killed, the witnesses said.

“The whole world should know about this!” Tkachenko said on Facebook.

Kniga, 62, is one of the most important and respected theater directors in Ukraine. He founded the international theater festival Melpomene of Tavria.

He was among many in Kherson who oppose the Russian occupation. On Monday, Russian troops used stun grenades and fired in the air to disperse a protest.

LVIV, Ukraine — Speaking on the eve of the NATO summit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the alliance to provide “effective and unrestricted” support to Ukraine, including any weapons the country needs to fend off the Russian invasion.

“We ask that the alliance declare that it will fully assist Ukraine to win this war, clear our territory of the invaders and restore peace in Ukraine,” he said late Wednesday during his nightly video address to the nation.

Zelenskyy will speak to the NATO summit by video, the president’s office said.

He appealed to Western countries to stay united in the face what he says are Russia’s efforts to “lobby its interests” with “some partners” to bring them over to its side.

“We will see who is a friend, who is a partner and who has sold out and betrayed us,” he said in an emotional speech. “Together we should not allow Russia to break anyone in NATO, the EU or G-7, to break them and drag them to the side of war.”

Zelenskyy noted that Ukrainian skies are still not closed to Russian aircraft and missiles and that Ukraine hasn’t received the fighter jets or modern air-defense systems it requested. He said Ukraine also needs tanks and anti-ship systems.

“It has been a month of defending ourselves from attempts to destroy us, wipe us off the face of the earth,” he said. “We have lasted six times longer than the enemy had planned … but the Russian troops are destroying our cities, killing civilians indiscriminately, raping women, kidnapping children, shooting refugees, capturing aid columns and looting.”

LONDON — Britain will send thousands more missiles to Ukraine’s government as Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Western allies to boost the supply of military aid to Ukraine.

Johnson is travelling to Brussels on Thursday for talks with NATO and leaders of the Group of Seven. He is expected to provide further details of the new British aid during the visit, including the donation of 6,000 more missiles comprising anti-tank and high-explosive weaponry.

“The United Kingdom will work with our allies to step up military and economic support to Ukraine, strengthening their defenses as they turn the tide in this fight,” Johnson said.

Britain has already sent more than 4,000 anti-tank weapons to Ukraine.

The U.K. government also says it is providing some 4 million pounds ($5.3 million) in emergency funding to the BBC World Service to counter disinformation in Russia and Ukraine.

LVIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called on people around the world to come “to your squares, your streets” to stand with Ukraine and against the war.

He said late Wednesday in his nightly video address to his people that the war “breaks my heart, the hearts of all Ukrainians and every free person on the planet.” He called for people to visibly show their support for Ukraine starting from Thursday, exactly one month after Russia launched its invasion.

He said, “Come from your offices, your homes, your schools and universities. Come in the name of peace. Come with Ukrainian symbols to support Ukraine, to support freedom, to support life.

“Come to your squares, your streets. Make yourselves visible and heard. Say that people matter. Freedom matters. Peace matters. Ukraine matters.”

Switching to Russian, Zelenskyy appealed to Russians “to leave Russia so as not to give your tax money to the war.” Tens of thousands of Russians already have fled Russia since the war began, fearing the intensifying crackdown at home.

A senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday that Russian ground forces appear to be digging in and setting up defensive positions between 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) outside Kyiv, as they continue to make little to no progress moving toward the city center.

The official said it appears the forces are no longer trying to advance into the city and, in some cases east of Kyiv, Ukrainian troops have been able to push Russian soldiers further away. The official said Russian forces had been 20-30 kilometers (12-19 miles) away to the east and northeast, and are now about 55 kilometers (34 miles) away.

The official said that, instead, Russian troops are exerting more energy and effort in the eastern Donbas region, specifically in Luhansk and Donetsk. The official said the U.S. is seeing Russia prioritize the fight there, in what could be an effort to cut off any Ukrainian troops in those areas and prevent them from moving west to defend other cities.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments.

The official said the U.S. has seen some activity from Russian ships in the Sea of Azov, including what appears to be efforts to send landing ships ashore with supplies, including vehicles.

Weapons and other security assistance from the U.S. continues to move into Ukraine. The official said that the final shipments from the $350 million package approved by the U.S. will be arriving in Ukraine in the next day or so, and the first shipments from the latest $800 million package will start arriving soon.

AP writer Lolita C. Bandor in Washington contributed to this report.

A senior Russian official says the country’s nuclear arsenal should help deter the West from intervening in the war in Ukraine.

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of the state corporation Roscosmos, noted in televised remarks Wednesday that the Russian nuclear stockpiles include tactical nuclear weapons along with the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Rogozin pointed at Russian President Vladimir Putin’s warning to other countries not to meddle with the Russian action in Ukraine. “The Russian Federation is capable of physically destroying any aggressor or any aggressor group within minutes at any distance,” Rogozin said.

Putin has warned the West that an attempt to introduce a no-fly zone over Ukraine will draw it into a conflict with Russia. Rogozin in his Wednesday’s comments didn’t elaborate on what specific action by the West would be seen as meddling in the conflict.

Rogozin’s statement comes amid Western fears that Russia could use battlefield nuclear weapons against Ukraine amid the stalled Russian offensive. U.S. officials have long warned that Russia’s military doctrine envisages an “escalate to deescalate” option of using battlefield nuclear weapons to force the enemy to back down in a situation when Russian forces face an imminent defeat in a conventional conflict. Moscow has denied having such designs.

LVIV, Ukraine — A rush to purchase guns and train with them continued in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Wednesday.

Among the people lined up at a gun range was Ihor Oprysk, who said he hadn’t fired a gun since serving in the Soviet army.

“I bought a gun to see how it feels,” Oprysk said. “To (know how to) shoot nowadays is very important. You need to know about everything.”

Gun shop owner Zakhar Sluzhalyy said he had 700 kinds of weapons for sale before the Russian invasion and was now down to 40. Supply chain problems have made it difficult to restock the shop with guns.

“The gun (sales) boom started three or four weeks before the war began,” Sluzhalyy said.

All guns are best-sellers now, he said as an $800 Kalashnikov rifle adapted for civilian use sat on a counter in front of him.

The war has prompted officials to streamline the monthlong permitting process for gun purchases to two days, he said.

ISACCEA, Romania — Refugees crossed the Danube River separating Ukraine and Romania by ferry on Wednesday.

A woman named Anastasia arrived in the small town of Isaccea, Romania, and said she was from Odesa. She said Russian ships had shelled the city from the Black Sea and that she and her family were headed to Constanta, a city on the Black Sea in southeastern Romania.

“It’s said to be a good city, the sea is not far away,” Anastasia said. “It feels almost like at home near the Black Sea. We’ll come back home after the war, of course. We really want to come back. We didn’t want to leave, but we have little kids and we have to think about their safety.”

KYIV, Ukraine — A Russian journalist has been killed by shelling in Kyiv on a reporting assignment.

The independent Russian news outlet The Insider said that Oksana Baulina was killed Wednesday when she was documenting the damage of a Russian shelling of the Podil district of the capital and came under a new strike. It said a civilian was also killed and two people who were accompanying Baulina were wounded and hospitalized.

The Insider said that Baulina had previously worked for the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation until she was forced to leave Russia after the organization was designated “extremist” by the authorities. It said it will continue to cover the war in Ukraine, “including such Russian war crimes as indiscriminate shelling of residential areas killing civilians and journalists.”

BRUSSELS — On the eve of a summit meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden, European Union nations signed off on another 500 million euros ($550 million) in military aid for Ukraine to help stave off the Russian onslaught on its territory.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell called the doubling of the EU’s military aid since the Feb. 24 beginning of the war “another sign of the EU’s support to the Ukrainian armed forces to defend their territory and their population.”

Borrell had already announced the additional injection of military aid at a March 11 summit in Versailles, but the proposal still had to go through the EU’s approval process.

Days after the start of the war, the EU agreed to spend 500 million euros on military supplies for Ukrainian forces in an unprecedented step of collectively supplying weapons to a country under attack.

BERLIN — German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has spoken by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin and inquired about the current status of efforts by Russia and Ukraine to find a diplomatic solution.

Government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit said in a statement Wednesday night that the chancellor urged Putin to achieve a cease-fire and an improvement of the humanitarian situation in Ukraine as quickly as possible.

After his conversation with Putin, Scholz spoke with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and asked about his assessment of the current situation and the negotiation process. Scholz and Zelenskyy agreed to remain in close contact.

WARSAW, Poland — Dozens of orphans and their caregivers from Ukraine who were delayed in Poland have finally boarded a plane for the U.K., where they are being given refuge due to the Russian invasion.

Some 50 youngsters from orphanages in the central Ukrainian city of Dnipro were due to fly to London on Monday before traveling on to Scotland. But they were forced to wait in a hotel due to missing paperwork from Ukraine.

Their journey was organized by Scottish charity Dnipro Kids, set up in 2005 by supporters of Hibernian Football Club in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

They were flown late Wednesday to London by Virgin Atlantic, which said on Twitter that it operated a special relief flight to take over 50 Ukrainian orphans and eight caretakers away from the conflict in Ukraine.

The effort to offer them temporary refugee status until the war is over has the support of the British government.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden’s top national security adviser says Biden and other world leaders will agree on steps to coordinate enforcement of crippling economic sanctions they have imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

Biden and other world leaders are set to hold a series of urgent meetings Thursday in Brussels on the month-old war.

The adviser, Jake Sullivan, says additional sanctions against Russian oligarchs and political figures will be announced. He says helping European countries reduce dependence on Russian energy will be a “substantial topic of conversation.” Announcements on that are expected Friday.

Sullivan says the United States is looking for ways to “surge” supplies of liquified natural gas to Europe to help make up for supply disruptions. The European Union imports nearly all of the natural gas needed to generate electricity, heat homes and supply industry, with Russia supplying nearly half of EU gas and a quarter of its oil

Sullivan, who is accompanying Biden, spoke to reporters Wednesday aboard Air Force One en route to Brussels.

KYIV, Ukraine — Air raid sirens wailed over the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv at dusk on Wednesday as the city remained under attack from Russian forces.

Barrages of shelling and loud gunfire rocked the city Wednesday, striking a shopping mall and high-rise buildings in the districts of Sviatoshynskyi and Shevchenkivskyi.

Fires from shelling injured four residents, city officials said.

Mayor Vitali Klitschko said at least 264 civilians have been killed in the capital since war broke out.

ROME — Italian Premier Mario Draghi says Italy is setting up procedures to accept Russian scientists who want to leave their homeland.

Some 60,000 people fleeing war in Ukraine have arrived in Italy over the last weeks.

The Italian government has allocated funds to help with housing and integration programs for those who have fled due to the war, but Draghi stressed in remarks in the Italian Senate on Wednesday evening that the special assistance doesn’t only apply to Ukrainian citizens.

“There are refugees who are scientists or university professors, who could come to Italy and could benefit by scholarships, by funds and financing for research,” Draghi said.

“Among these are Russian scientists who are asking to get out. We must accept them, and I asked the (interior) minister to let them know” that they are welcome and to “even set up a telephone number they can call so the procedures to welcome these scientists can be set in motion,’’ the premier said.

Draghi didn’t provide any number of how many such Russians might pursue the possibility.

ODESA, Ukraine — Dozens of volunteers filled sandbags and piled them on the back of trucks at a beach in the Black Sea port city of Odesa on Wednesday. Volunteers have been at the beach filling sandbags since the war began to build barricades around the city.

Merchant sea captain Sivak Vitaliy, 47, carried sandbags over each shoulder and said with a smile, “We win.”

The father of three daughters, Vitaliy said he had gathered clothes and other items from his apartment to donate to the war effort. With no money or anything else of value to give, he came to the beach Wednesday after learning of the volunteer effort there.

“Because they (Ukrainian army) are in their own land, they will not permit anybody to come and take their land and take their lives,” Vitaliy said. “No matter how bad the situation is in Mariupol, Kharkiv, it doesn’t matter. We will win.”

WASHINGTON — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the Biden administration has made a formal determination that Russian troops have committed war crimes in Ukraine.

Blinken said the assessment was based on a “careful review” of public and intelligence sources since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month.

America’s top diplomat said the United States would share that information with allies, partners and international institutions tasked with investigating allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Blinken made the announcement Wednesday in a statement released as he was traveling to Brussels with President Joe Biden for an emergency summit of NATO leaders.

LONDON — Russian Olympic athletes who participated in a rally supporting President Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine are facing a backlash, with one losing a sponsorship deal and facing a disciplinary investigation.

Medalists from cross-country skiing, gymnastics, figure skating and swimming gathered on stage at the Luzhniki Stadium on Friday as part of the concert and entertainment program around Putin’s speech.

Olympic champion swimmer Evgeny Rylov is under investigation from the sport’s governing body, known as FINA, for attending the event.

Rylov also lost his endorsement deal with swimwear manufacturer Speedo because of his involvement in the pro-Putin rally.

Most of the athletes, including Rylov, were pictured wearing jackets with a “Z” on the chest at the rally. The letter isn’t part of the Russian alphabet but has become a symbol of support for Russian troops after it was used as a marker on Russian armored vehicles operating in Ukraine.

Other Olympic medalists athletes in attendance included figure skaters Victoria Sinitsina, Nikita Katsalapov, Evgenia Tarasova and Vladimir Morozov; cross-country skier Alexander Bolshunov; and rhythmic gymnastic twin sisters Dina and Arina Averina.

PARIS — Ukrainian refugees lined up outside a welcome center in Paris on Wednesday that’s providing food and temporary shelter to people as some await transfer to permanent shelters in Brittany in northwestern France.

The center is run jointly by Paris authorities and several French NGOs. French Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Wednesday that 26,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in the country since Feb. 24. While some have remained in France, others have traveled to Spain, Portugal and the United Kingdom, Castex said.

European Union member countries have granted Ukrainians a six-month temporary protection visa, renewable up to a maximum of three years. This Temporary Protection Directive, implemented for the first time in the EU, includes a residence permit, access to the labor market and housing, medical assistance, and access to education for children.

Hayko, a 30-year-old woman from Lviv, arrived in Paris with her friend, Tanja, 31, and their three children after a lengthy trip from Ukraine through Moldova and Romania. They said they left Lviv a few days after the Russian invasion began. They plan to live for now with Tanja’s sister-in-law, who lives in Paris.

“I have a 7-year-old son,” Hayko said. “My husband is in Ukraine. He is protecting our country. We don’t want to stay here for the rest of our lives. I hope it will only be for a short period of time.”

UNITED NATIONS — Ukraine’s U.N ambassador is urging all nations that stand against Russia’s invasion to vote for a U.N. resolution on the humanitarian consequences of its aggression, saying this will send a powerful message aimed at helping people caught in the conflict and ending Moscow’s military action.

Russia’s U.N. envoy countered that the U.N. General Assembly, which is considering the resolution, is just “another political anti-Russian show, set this time in an allegedly humanitarian context” and urged its 193 member nations to vote against it and support a rival South African draft resolution that focuses solely on humanitarian issues with no “political assessment.”

Ukraine’s Sergiy Kyslytsya and Russia’s Vassily Nebenzia spoke at the start of Wednesday’s emergency special session of the General Assembly to consider the rival resolutions on the humanitarian impact of the war, which will mark its one-month anniversary on Thursday. Russia has also called for a vote later Wednesday in the U.N. Security Council on its own humanitarian resolution, which has been widely criticized for not referring to its invasion of Ukraine.

Kyslytsya said the Ukraine-backed assembly resolution, drafted by two dozen diplomats from all parts of the world and co-sponsored by nearly 100 countries, focuses on “the urgent need to elevate the humanitarian suffering on the ground and immediate cessation of hostilities by the Russian Federation.”

Nebenzia warned that adoption of that resolution “will make a resolution to the situation in Ukraine more difficult.” That’s because it will likely embolden Ukrainian negotiators and “nudge them to maintaining the current unrealistic position, which is not related to the situation on the ground, nor to the need to tackle the root causes” of Russia’s military action, he said.

WASHINGTON — A senior NATO military officer says the alliance estimates that Russia has suffered between 30,000 and 40,000 battlefield casualties in Ukraine through the first month of the war, including between 7,000 and 15,000 killed. It is NATO’s first public estimate of Russian casualties since the war started Feb. 24.

The military officer, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by NATO, said the estimate of the number killed is based on a combination of information from the Ukrainian government, indications from Russia, and open-source information.

The U.S. government has largely declined to provide public estimates of Russian or Ukrainian casualties, saying available information is of questionable reliability.

The NATO military officer, in a briefing from the alliance’s military headquarters in Belgium on Wednesday, said the estimate of 30,000 to 40,000 Russian casualties is derived from what he called a standard calculation that in war an army suffers three wounded soldiers for every soldier killed. The casualties include killed in action and wounded in action, as well as those taken prisoner or missing in action, the officer said.

Associated Press Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

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