Friday in Ukraine: Radio Liberty journalist killed, Donbas advance going slowly

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Ukraine said Friday that five Russian missiles had struck Kyiv during the visit of United Nations Secretary General António Guterres a day earlier, bringing widespread condemnation as vast quantities of weapons for Ukrainian forces continued to arrive in Eastern Europe.

End-of-the-week transfers include more American artillery, radar systems and armed drones, as well as mines, rockets and small arms ammunition from other countries.

The increased tempo of shipments comes as Ukrainian forces are trying to hold back a major Russian assault in Donbas region. A senior US defense official said Russian troops appear to be “at least several days behind where they wanted to be” in the new offensive and have met strong Ukrainian resistance.

The Russians have relied on airstrikes, followed by artillery strikes, before moving their ground forces forward, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. The official said the ground movements have been “fairly plodding.”

Russia appears to have abandoned its earlier goal to capture Kyiv and other population centers in the northern and central parts of the country, instead focusing on Donbas, a section of eastern Ukraine where fighting has gone on for years. In response to urgent Ukrainian requests, the West has been flooding the country with heavy weaponry, including artillery, suitable for a sustained ground campaign.

The Thursday attack on Kyiv destroyed what Russia described as an “arms factory” and also struck a high-rise apartment building, killing Ukrainian journalist, Vira Hyrych, who worked for the US-funded broadcaster Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. It was the first major strike on the capital since Russian forces withdrew from that region earlier this month.

“We are shocked and angered by the senseless nature of her death at home, in a country and city she loved,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty President Jamie Fly said in a statement. He said her remains of her were found Friday morning amid the building wreckage.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the attack — during Guterres’s visit, shortly after he saw Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow — was an attempt by the Kremlin to “humiliate the UN and everything the organization represents.” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, at a joint news conference in Helsinki with his Swedish counterpart to discuss their possible applications for NATO membership, called for the matter to be taken up in the UN Security Council, where Russia is one of five veto-wielding permanent members.

Guterres on Friday tweeted pictures of his time touring the decimated buildings around the capital, and wrote that he was “moved by the resilience and bravery of the people of Ukraine. My message to them is simple: We will not give up.” At the UN, deputy spokesman Farhan Haq said that secretary general didn’t see the Kyiv attack “as about him.”

“[The secretary general] sees this as another sign that there are parties who are wanting to continue this war, and we want to keep our push to make sure that the conflict can be ended,” Haq said.

At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said that the US military has begun training Ukrainian troops on the newly-arriving weaponry, including howitzer 155mm artillery and counter-artillery radar. The bulk of the training, Kirby said, will be carried out by members of the Florida National Guard, which had training forces inside Ukraine until just before Russia’s February invasion.

New commitments, and reaffirmations of existing ones, were made by a number of nations attending a US-sponsored conference in Germany of more than 40 countries supporting Ukraine. One goal of the conference was to synchronize the donations and their delivery, and to meet Ukraine’s immediate needs.

Canada, among those who attended, is also supplying howitzers, as well as precision cameras for Turkish-made armed drones and other equipment, Anita Anand, Canada’s defense minister, said in an interview Thursday. “We need to keep supplying military aid regardless of the changing strategy of the Russians,” she said.

Kirby, in a briefing for reporters on Friday, used some of his strongest language yet to describe Putin, accusing him of “depravity” in emotional comments. Asked if Putin was a rational actor, Kirby said it was hard to look at what the Russian leader and his forces were doing after two months of war in Ukraine and “think that any ethical, moral individual could justify that.”

After pausing to compose himself, Kirby, a retired admiral, said that he could not speak for the entire US government.

“I have been around the military for a long, long time, and I have known friends who didn’t make it back,” he told reporters. “It’s just hard… It’s just difficult to look at that, and it’s hard to square his de el — let’s just call it what it is — his bs de el,” he said, referring to Putin.

There were stark reminders in Ukraine of the war’s human toll. Zelensky told Polish media that officials had discovered a mass grave in the Kyiv region “with the bodies of 900 civilians.” A spokesman for the president, Serhiy Nykyforov, later said Zelensky misspoke. A new mass grave was discovered near Bucha this week, he said, but “the 900 people is the approximate number of corpses found in that region” following the Russian withdrawal.

Among the deaths reported Friday was a 22-year-old US citizen and Marine Corps veteran, Willy Joseph Cancel, whose family said he was killed in the fighting this week. The nature of Cancel’s activity in Ukraine and the circumstances surrounding his death, first reported by CNN, were not immediately clear. His son “just wanted to help out,” Cancel’s father, Willy Cancel Jr., told The Washington Post.

Cancel joined the Marine Corps in 2017 as an infantry rifleman, said Maj. Jim Stenger, a spokesman for the service. His awards indicate he spent some time at sea and in South Korea. Cancel left the military after being court-martialed in 2020 and serving a five-month jail sentence, the service said. A person familiar with the matter said Cancel was court-martialed after bringing a weapon onto base.

Cancel would be the first known American killed in combat in Ukraine. President Biden, asked about the death at an unrelated event in Washington, said “It’s very sad. I have left a little baby behind.”

Separately, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said it would take “immediate steps” to end a monitoring mission in Ukraine, days after the organization said some of its workers were detained in Russian-occupied territory.

“This is not an easy decision to take,” Poland Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, who became the OSCE chairman in January, said in a statement. He said the group “explored all possible options through political dialogue… but the position of the Russian Federation left us with no choice but to take steps to close down the Mission.”

Rau did not tie the detentions directly to the withdrawal decision. In March, the security organization, composed of 57 member states, said Russia, a voting member, had opposed an extension of the mission, effectively ending a mandate that had been in place since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.

As Europe searches for ways to end its dependence on Russian energy supplies, a fractious European Union debate about halting oil imports was expected to continue through the weekend. Softening from Germany, which wants an oil phaseout rather than a full an immediate ban, was seen by EU diplomats as making a deal more likely, but far from guaranteed.

Baltic states and some other Eastern European countries have called for a total energy embargo. Others, notably Germany and Hungary, have resisted. The ban was seen as increasingly critical to undercutting a main support of Russia’s economy as the war entered its third month.

Emily Rauhala in Brussels, Timothy Bella, Abigail Hauslohner, Julian Mark and Felicia Sonmez in Washington contributed to this report.

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