Pope Francis blasts Russian ‘ferocity and cruelty’; ‘scorched earth’ bombing drives Ukraine troops to brink: Live updates

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Pope Francis praised the courage of Ukrainians, chastised NATO and provided withering criticism for Russia’s aggression in excerpts from an interview with multiple news last month published Tuesday in Italy’s La Stampa daily.

Francis blasted the “ferocity and cruelty” of Russian troops and credited Ukrainians with “heroism” and “courage” for the staunch defense of their country.

“The Russians thought it’d be over in a week. But they miscalculated,” Francis said. “They found a courageous people, a people who are fighting to survive and have a history of fighting.”

Francis said NATO was not blameless, citing the military alliance’s eastern expansion.

“Two months before the conflict, a head of state told me that the Atlantic Alliance was in danger of unleashing what happened,” Francis said.

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Latest developments

► State Department officials have met with representatives of Brittney Griner’s WNBA team. Griner was detained Feb. 17 at an airport in Moscow after Russian authorities said a search of her bag revealed vape cartridges containing a cannabis derivative.

► After years of limited cutbacks in nuclear warheads among the nine nations that possess them, nuclear arsenals figure to increase over the next decade, according to findings in the 2022 yearbook released Monday by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Lives destroyed: Ukrainians’ stories of loved ones lost in the war

Thousands of civilians have been killed in the Russian war on Ukraine. Countless more have been left alone in the aftermath, figuring out how to move forward when those they loved most are gone. Anna Priymenko, 37, lost her only brother and three nephews to the war. USA TODAY interviewed Priymenko and others, assembling the stories behind some of the lives destroyed and devastated by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Read their stories here.

“It is clear that this time may pass, it may settle down a little, but … it will never be the way it was. It will never be,” Priymenko told USA TODAY.

– Karina Zaiets, Janie Haseman and Katelyn Ferral

12,000 residents remain in embattled Sievierodonetsk, a city of 100,000

Russian troops control 80% of the besieged city of Sievierodonetsk and have destroyed all three bridges out, but evacuations of the wounded are continuing, a Ukraine official said Tuesday. Sievierodonetsk and its twin city of Lysychansk are the last in Luhansk Oblast to avoid full capture by Russian troops. Luhansk regional governor Serhii Haidai said Ukrainian forces have been pushed out to the industrial outskirts of Sievierodonetsk because of Russia’s “scorched earth method.”

About 12,000 people remain in Sievierodonetsk, a city with a pre-war population of 100,000. More than 500 civilians are holing up in a chemical plant that is being relentlessly pounded by the Russians, according to Haidai. Russian-backed separatists say scores of Ukraine soldiers are also hiding in the plant.

Russian military forces have made progress in capturing Donbas, now controlling over 95% of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, the two regions that make up the Donbas.

Ukraine to make pitch for much-needed weaponry

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin will host defense ministers from around the world Wednesday in Brussels, Belgium, for the  Ukraine Defense Contact Group. Ukraine Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov will make his pitch for more weapons, and Austin said the group will try to ensure that Ukraine gets what it needs to repel Russia’s invasion. The ministers will also help Ukraine “build and sustain robust defenses” so that Ukraine will be able to defend itself in the future.

“We’ll continue to work to get as much as we can there as fast as we can in order to  help them be successful,” Austin said.

India, China provide large markets for Russian energy exports that fund war

Despite Western sanctions imposed over its invasion of Ukraine, Russia is finding ample markets for its energy products, keeping the Kremlin’s war machine well funded.

China, India and other Asian nations are becoming an increasingly vital source of oil revenue for Moscow, disregarding strong pressure from the U.S. not to increase their purchases as the European Union and other allies cut off energy imports from Russia in line with the sanctions. Those sales are boosting Russian export profits at a time when Washington and its allies are trying to limit them.

The Finland-based Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air said Monday that Russia has received about 93 billion euros ($97.4 billion) in revenue from the sale of oil, natural gas and coal since the Feb. 24 invasion. China has overtaken Germany as the biggest buyer, spending 12.6 billion over that time. Germany, which is trying to wean itself from a dependency on Russian energy, has spent 12.1 billion euros.

“Revenue from fossil fuel exports is the key enabler of Russia’s military buildup and aggression, providing 40% of federal budget revenue,” the center said.

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