As air raid sirens wailed repeatedly Sunday in Kyiv and in cities and towns across Ukraine, First Lady Jill Biden made a foray into the embattled country, meeting her Ukrainian counterpart near the Slovakian border.
The day also saw another high-profile Western visit from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who traveled to a suburban town outside Kyiv where evidence has emerged of gruesome atrocities committed by Russian troops during a monthlong occupation.
And U.S. diplomats returned to Kyiv, the capital, for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, with the U.S. Embassy tweeting a photo of acting Ambassador Kristina Kvien’s arrival.
Meanwhile, rescuers in an eastern Ukrainian village dug through the rubble of a bombarded school turned shelter where up to 60 people were missing and feared dead, according to Ukrainian officials. If confirmed, the death toll would be the worst known in a single strike since Russian missiles last month slammed into a train station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk.
As fighting raged in Ukraine’s east, tensions rose on the eve of a major Russian holiday celebrating the then-Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany 77 years ago in World War II. Russian President Vladimir Putin is expected to use Monday’s Victory Day commemorations to somehow glorify, or at least rebrand, his army’s 10-week-old invasion of Ukraine.
In a preview of his holiday messaging, Putin on Sunday described Russia’s war in Ukraine as meant to achieve Ukrainians’ “liberation of their native land from Nazi filth.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky put a very different stamp on the memorial occasion, observed Sunday in Ukraine — a Soviet republic before it became independent more than 30 years ago — as the Day of Remembrance and Reconciliation. The United States and most of Europe mark May 8 as V-E Day.
In a starkly dramatic video shot in the badly damaged Kyiv satellite town of Borodianka, occupied by Russia during Moscow’s failed attempt early in the war to capture Kyiv, Zelensky likened his country’s fierce resistance against the invasion to the World War II struggle against fascism.
“Never again?” he asked, with ruined buildings as a backdrop. “Try telling Ukraine that.”
Separately, the Ukrainian leader said in his overnight video address that the brutality of Russia’s war against its smaller neighbor “should remind every state and every nation that it is impossible to defeat evil once and for all.”
Amid continuing Western efforts to get Putin to break off his assault, leaders of the Group of Seven nations, including President Biden, held a video consultation with Zelensky on Sunday.
“We reiterate our condemnation of Russia’s unprovoked, unjustifiable and illegal military aggression against Ukraine and the indiscriminate attacks against civilians and civilian infrastructure, which has resulted in terrible humanitarian catastrophe in the heart of Europe,” the leaders wrote in a statement following the hourlong session. “We are appalled by the large-scale loss of human life, assault on human rights, and destruction that Russia’s actions have inflicted on Ukraine.”
In addition to announcing further sanctions, the G-7 said it was committed to phasing out the use of Russian oil and gas, or banning them outright, but did not give a timetable for doing so. The U.S. has already banned Russian energy imports, but Europe is considerably more dependent.
The sanctions include steps against three major state-controlled Russian media organizations and more Russian elites being targeted by visa restrictions.
The call, intended as a show of Western solidarity, came hours after Jill Biden’s trip to Ukraine, which was disclosed after she had departed the country.
In a rare war-zone visit by a sitting first lady, Biden spent about two hours inside Ukraine, holding a Mother’s Day meeting with Olena Zelenska, Zelensky’s wife, at a school in the town of Uzhhorod, a short drive from the Slovakian border.
Biden, whose trip came amid a four-day visit to front-line countries in eastern Europe, said she wanted to make the visit on Mother’s Day to underscore that “this war has been brutal, and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Zelenska, appearing publicly for the first time since the Russians invaded her nation, thanked Biden for her “courageous act” at a time when “military actions are taking place every day, where air sirens are happening every day.”
Trudeau presided over a flag-hoisting at the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv and met with Ukrainian officials. His visit to the outlying town of Irpin was documented by its mayor, Oleksandr Markushyn, who wrote on Telegram that the Canadian leader, the latest in a string of visiting dignitaries, was shown “the horror that the Russian occupiers had done to our city.”
In the south of Ukraine, in the bomb-flattened port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian officials said efforts were turning Sunday to extracting defenders of a sprawling steel plant that is the final Ukrainian redoubt in the strategic city.
The last of the civilians trapped there — women, children and the elderly — were brought to safety on Saturday, Ukrainian officials said, after spending hungry and frightened weeks seeking safety in the steel plant’s warren of underground bunkers and tunnels.
The United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator for Ukraine announced Sunday that more than 170 people had been evacuated from Mariupol after 10 weeks of shelling and brought to Zaporizhzhia, a city in southeastern Ukraine. More than 600 people have now been evacuated from the Mariupol area, according to coordinator Osnat Lubrani.
“We are also working to evacuate our military,” Zelensky said in his overnight address. “We do not lose hope, we do not stop — every day we are looking for a diplomatic option that could work out.”
In an online appeal from inside the plant Sunday, a Ukrainian commander, Capt. Sviatoslav Palamar, said the defenders would “continue to fight as long as we are alive.” The Ukrainian forces have repeatedly refused to surrender, saying they expected to be tortured and killed by Russian forces if they did.
Russia, which has been trying since the start of the war to capture Mariupol, is thought to attach not only practical but symbolic importance to finally subduing the city in time for Monday’s Victory Day celebrations.
Putin declared victory in the battle of Mariupol on April 21, but full control of the city will give Moscow the ability to create a land bridge between territory where it holds sway and the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014.
Municipal officials have said up to 20,000 Mariupol residents have died in the course of the war, and satellite imagery has pinpointed the presence of mass graves on the ruined city’s outskirts.
In Ukraine’s eastern battle zone, Ukrainian officials described a horrific toll on noncombatants caught in intensifying Russian bombardment. Moscow’s forces have been using barrages of artillery, often hitting civilian areas, to try to break through Ukrainian lines.
In the village of Bilohorivka, in Luhansk province, about 90 people were sheltering at a school when it was bombed and burst into flames Saturday, Ukrainian officials said. Regional Gov. Serhiy Haidai said about 30 people had been rescued, with two confirmed dead and seven others injured, leaving dozens unaccounted for in the incinerated wreckage.
“Sixty people were likely to have died under the rubble,” he wrote Sunday on the Telegram messaging app.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry called the shelling of the school a war crime. Noting that the attack took place hours before the start of Ukrainian commemorations of the defeat of Nazi Germany, the ministry said Russian forces were “constantly repeating the tragedy of World War II.”
In a separate episode in the village of Shypilovo, about 11 people were thought to have been inside a home that was hit by shelling, Haidai said, citing preliminary information. His province, Luhansk, is one of two making up the Donbas region, the industrial heartland that Russia is trying to capture.
Adding to the misery of life in the battle zone, a Russian airstrike in Luhansk damaged electrical infrastructure, cutting off power to the Ukrainian-held part of the province. Many civilians have fled, at the government’s urging, but tens of thousands of residents remain in the area.
Western military analysts have painted Russia’s much-vaunted offensive in Ukraine’s east as beset by problems. An assessment Sunday by British military intelligence cited “difficulties in command and control, as well as faltering Russian performance on the front line,” a 300-mile arc stretching from Ukraine’s southeast to northeast.
Following actor and humanitarian Angelina Jolie’s trip to western Ukraine last week, Sunday saw another celebrity visit to the country. Bono, the lead singer of the Irish rock band U2, and its guitarist the Edge staged a surprise performance at a Kyiv subway station where residents had sheltered from bombardment earlier in the war. In addition to some of their signature songs, they invited a soldier to join them in performing Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.” On Twitter, the group said Zelensky had invited them to visit the capital.
King reported from Kyiv and Subramanian from Washington.