© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Service members of pro-Russian troops, including fighters from the Chechen Special Forces unit, stand in front of the destroyed administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during the conflict between Ukraine and Russia in the southern port city of
By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukraine will ask US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Minister Lloyd Austin for more powerful weapons during an expected visit by officials to Kiev on Sunday as the Russian invasion enters its third month.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country would overcome “dark times” in an emotional speech at Kiev’s 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral to mark Orthodox Easter as fighting in the east overshadowed religious celebrations.
Blinken’s and Austin’s trip, which Zelenskiy has previously announced, would be the highest level visit to Ukraine by US officials since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of the country on February 24.
The White House has not confirmed any visit, and the State Department and the Pentagon declined to comment. But Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said late Sunday in a video on social media that Blinken and Austin had arrived in Kiev and were holding talks with the Ukrainian president.
“We are inspired by the resilience of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine to President Putin’s brutal war of aggression,” Blinken said earlier on Twitter (NYSE :).
On Twitter, Zelenskiy thanked US President Joe Biden and the United States for their leadership in supporting Ukraine.
After Ukrainian fighters forced a Russian retreat from around Kiev, Moscow’s attacks are now focused on the eastern Donbas region and the southern part of the country. With a semblance of normal life returning to the capital, several countries have reopened embassies in recent days, and some residents fleeing the fighting returned for Easter.
Moscow, which describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, denies targeting civilians and denies what Ukraine says are evidence of atrocities, saying Kyiv staged them to undermine peace talks.
Pope Francis called for an Easter truce: “Stop the attacks to help the exhausted population. Stop,” he said.
Ukrainian refugees filled churches across Central Europe.
“I pray that this horror in Ukraine will soon end and that we can return home,” said Nataliya Krasnopolskaia, who fled to Prague from Odesa last month, one of the more than 5 million Ukrainians estimated to be escaped the country.
Ukrainian officials plan to tell Blinken and Austin about the immediate need for more weapons, including anti-missile systems, anti-aircraft systems, armored vehicles and tanks, Zelenskiy assistant Igor Zhovkva told NBC News on Sunday.
The United States and NATO allies have shown increasing readiness to supply heavier equipment and more advanced weapons systems. Britain has promised to send military vehicles and is considering supplying British tanks to Poland to release Warsaw’s Russian-designed T-72s to Ukraine.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said after telephone conversations with Zelenskiy that Ankara was ready to assist in negotiations with Russia. Zelenskiy said he was discussing with Erdogan the need for immediate evacuation of civilians from the southern city of Mariupol, the site of the conflict’s biggest blow.
Russian forces were again trying to storm the Azovstal steelworks, the main remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Mariupol on Sunday, Ukrainian officials said, adding that more than 1,000 civilians are also housed there.
Ukraine on Sunday proposed a “special” round of talks with Russia to discuss the fate of the civilian and Ukrainian troops still trapped in the city, although Moscow has not yet responded publicly.
The aim of the negotiations would be to establish an immediate ceasefire in Mariupol, “multi-day” humanitarian corridors and the liberation or replacement of Ukrainian fighters trapped in the facility, said Ukraine’s Arestovych.
Serhiy Volyna, commander of Ukraine’s 36th Marine Brigade force in Mariupol, said Russia hit the facility with air and artillery bombardments.
“We take victims, the situation is critical … we have a lot of injured men, (some) die … the situation is deteriorating rapidly,” Volyna said.
Moscow has previously declared victory in the city, saying it did not need to take the facility.
Conquering Mariupol would connect pro-Russian separatists, who control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up the Donbas, with the southern Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow conquered in 2014.
Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and says 100,000 civilians are still in the city. The UN and the Red Cross say the civil toll is at least in the thousands.
The ecumenical patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Eastern Orthodox Christians around the world, called for humanitarian corridors in Mariupol and other areas of Ukraine, where he said “an indescribable human tragedy is unfolding”.
The governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said five people, including at least two children, were killed by Russian shelling in the area on Sunday.
Kharkiv region officials said three people were killed and 14 wounded in shelling during the day, and that Ukrainian forces there had launched counter-offensives that brought three villages back under Ukrainian control.
Arestovych said Russia was trying to concentrate forces near the southeastern city of Hulyaipole in the Zaporizhzhia region and had moved 10 km (6.21 miles) forward in the last 24 hours, but that Ukrainian forces had now slowed the advance.
Ukraine’s Armed Forces Operation Command said last week that its forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions had repulsed 63 Russian attacks and destroyed 55 tanks and dozens more vehicles, including 13 tanks in the last 24 hours.
Russia said on Sunday that its missiles hit eight military targets overnight, including four weapons depots in the Kharkiv region and a plant in the Dnipropetrovsk region that produces explosives for the Ukrainian army.
The Russian state news agency TASS quoted a local official as saying on Sunday that a village in Russia’s Belgorod region bordering Ukraine was shelled from across the border, but that no one was injured or injured.
Reuters could not independently confirm the reports from either side.
British military intelligence said Ukrainian resistance had been strong, especially in the Donbas, despite some Russian gains.
“Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstruct, re-equip and reorganize forces from previous offensives are likely an obstacle to Russian combat efficiency,” it said.