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Blinken Formalizes Accusations of Russian War Crimes in Ukraine

A Ukrainian firefighter sprays water inside a house destroyed by shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 23, 2022.

PENTAGON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday Russian forces have committed war crimes in Ukraine and that the U.S. will work to hold Russia accountable.

"We've seen numerous credible reports of indiscriminate attacks and attacks deliberately targeting civilians, as well as other atrocities," Blinken said, adding that many of the apartment buildings, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure hit “have been clearly identifiable as in-use by civilians."

The assessment was based on a careful review of public and intelligence information gathered since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine last month, according to the secretary.

Blinken traveled with U.S. President Joe Biden to Brussels Wednesday to meet with NATO and European allies on Thursday. Before his departure, Biden warned of Russia's potential use of chemical weapons against Ukraine.

“I think it’s a real threat,” the president told reporters as he left the White House.

Biden administration officials have previously sounded the alarm that Moscow could use chemical weapons in Ukraine and blame the Ukrainians for their use as part of a false flag operation to justify the Russian invasion. The president has previously warned that Russia would pay a severe price if it launched a chemical weapons attack but hasn’t specified what that response would involve.

Russia has repeatedly rejected accusations of war crimes.

Biden is expected to announce a new round of sanctions against Russia on Thursday, which marks one month since its invasion of Ukraine.

NATO is also expected to announce the deployment of four new battlegroups to the alliance’s eastern flank as part of its additional defensive measures since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels Wednesday.

The combat-ready units are set to deploy to Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia, according to Stoltenberg, bringing the total number of NATO battlegroups on its eastern flank to eight. The other NATO battlegroups have been fully operational in the Baltic states and Poland since 2017.

“I expect leaders will agree to strengthen NATO’s posture in all domains, with major increases of forces in the eastern part of the alliance on land, in the air and at sea,” Stoltenberg said, adding that Russia’s aggression is creating a “new normal” for NATO security.

The alliance chief said NATO leaders are also set to announce an agreement to address nuclear, chemical and other threats from Russia.

“I expect allies will agree to provide additional support, including cybersecurity assistance as well as equipment to help Ukraine protect against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats,” he said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is scheduled to virtually address Thursday’s NATO summit, and he said ahead of the meeting that he is expecting Western leaders to both add to their Russian sanctions and pledge more aid for Ukraine.

Britain will announce a package of aid that includes 6,000 anti-tank and high-explosive missiles and about $33 million for the Ukrainian military and for the BBC to fight disinformation, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

One key Russian industry that has been discussed for possible sanctions is the country’s lucrative oil and gas exports, but reliance on those supplies, particularly among European Union nations, which get 40% of their gas from Russia, has raised concerns about the effects of such actions.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Wednesday that his country would “end this dependency as soon as possible,” but that doing so immediately “would mean to push our country and the rest of Europe into recession.”

Meanwhile shelling continued Wednesday in Kyiv, including attacks that injured four people in the Ukrainian capital. In the city of Chernihiv, Russian forces destroyed a bridge that had been used for evacuating civilians and delivering aid.

A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Wednesday that Ukrainians have pushed Russian forces back to about 55 kilometers east and northeast of Kyiv, whereas a day earlier they were about 20-30 kilometers away.

Russian forces are still trying to encircle Chernihiv but are stalled between eight and10 kilometers from the city center, the official added.

Stoltenberg told reporters the Ukrainian military’s resilience is the result of the courage of the Ukrainian people and a military that is stronger than it was when Russia invaded and annexed Crimea eight years ago.

A NATO official who was speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence told reporters Wednesday that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine.

The official said Russian forces have achieved “almost none” of their strategic objectives, while noting “they are stalled” in the northern cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv and Chernihiv.

Russia is “achieving more results in the south, but the price is horrendous,” the official said.

On its English-language Telegram feed, Russia’s Ministry of Defense portrayed a vastly different war effort, praising Russian forces as they advanced on parts of southeastern Ukraine while Ukrainian forces fled, and claiming success in taking out Ukrainian fuel depots and positions with “high-precision long-range” weapons.

The United Nations says more than 3.6 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion one month ago. Another 6.5 million people have been displaced from their homes within the country.

National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin and U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer contributed to this report.

Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.