Blinken and Austin meet with Zelenskyy in Kyiv, promise more US military aid: April 24 recap

Editor's note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Sunday, April 24. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Monday, April 25, as Russia's invasion continues. 

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv Sunday night, according to Ukraine's presidential adviser.

The adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, said in an interview on Ukrainian TV late Sunday that the talks are going on “right now.” Blinken and Austin's meeting with Zelenskyy is the highest-ranking visit to Ukraine by a U.S. delegation since Russia began its invasion.

According to The Associated Press, Blinken and Austin told Zelenskyy and his advisers that the United States would provide more than $300 million in foreign military financing and had approved a $165 million sale of ammunition.

They also said that President Joe Biden would soon announce his nominee for ambassador to Ukraine and that American diplomats who left Ukraine before the war would start returning to the country this coming week, AP reported.

Reporters who accompanied Austin and Blinken to Poland were barred by Pentagon and State Department officials from reporting the Kyiv visit until the two men physically left Ukraine. U.S. officials cited security concerns.

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Latest developments:

The Ukrainian military said it destroyed a Russian command post in Kherson, a southern city that fell to Russian forces early in the war.

►French President Emmanuel Macron cruised to a second term Sunday, beating back a stronger-than-expected challenge from far-right populist Marine Le Pen, who has attacked the European Union and NATO and expressed support for Russia.

►Speaking in St. Peter’s Square, Pope Francis lamented the "barbarity" of the war. “It is sad that these days, which are the holiest and most solemn for all Christians, we hear the deadly noise of weapons rather than the sound of bells announcing the Resurrection," the pope said. "It is sad that arms are taking the place of words.”

►The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe said it is "extremely concerned" that several mission members are being held in eastern Ukraine. The Vienna-based agency said it is using "all available channels to facilitate their release" but did not specify the number of people being held or who was holding them.

►Russian missile and artillery troops hit 423 targets in Ukraine overnight as part of the special military operation, Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov said Sunday. He said 26 Ukrainian command posts, 367 "places of the amassment of manpower and military equipment" and 25 gun lines were hit.

Worshippers light candles at the Saint Volodymyr's Cathedral during Orthodox Eastern celebrations in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 24, 2022.

French priest investigates 'horrific' Russian war crimes

A French priest is investigating alleged, "horrific" Russian war crimes in the southern Ukraine city of Mariupol and warns that result could show worse brutality than what was discovered in the town of Bucha.

"Every Ukrainian is now a witness to the horrific crimes of the Russian Federation," Father Patrick Desbois says on the website of his organization, Yahad-In Unum. "If you have witnessed Russian troops shelling a peaceful neighborhood or destroying civilian infrastructure, your testimony will be very helpful in the investigation."

Desbois, who promises anonymity, is known for his investigations of the mass shootings in Eastern European countries – including Ukraine – occupied by Nazi Germany during World War II. He told The Washington Post he believes Mariupol “will be worse than Bucha," where hundreds of residents were apparently massacred during Russia's assault on and occupation of the city.

Desbois told the Washington Post he does not believe there is enough evidence yet to label Russian behavior as “genocide,” as President Joe Biden has said.

“Sadly, it will depend on what happens next,” he told The Post.

Ukraine celebrates Easter hoping 'our sunrise will come soon'

Ukrainians marked Orthodox Easter in the capital, Kyiv, on Sunday with prayers for those fighting on the front lines in the Donbas region and others trapped in cities such as Mariupol. But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Ukrainians not to let anger at the war overwhelm them.

“All of us believe our sunrise will come soon,” he said.

The Eastern Orthodox church follows the Julian calendar, first proposed by Julius Caesar in 46 BC, rather than the Gregorian calendar adopted by Catholic Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. This means the holiday typically falls later than Easter Sunday in Western Christian tradition.The deputy commander of the nationalist Azov Regiment, which has been battling separatists in the Donbas since 2014, recorded a video address chastising the Russian military for failing to observe the holy day. 

"The enemy continues to drop air bombs, ship artillery fires, guns are fired," Captain Sviatoslav Palamar said.

Mariupol 'almost wiped out' but Ukraine military hanging on

The southern Ukraine city of Mariupol is "almost wiped out," but a top adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied Sunday that Russia controls the beleaguered city.

Igor Zhovkva told NBC News' "Meet the Press" that weapons delivered by the U.S. and its allies so far have been what the country needs to fight Russia, but it now also needs weapons to defend its skies. Noting NATO has declined to imposed a "no-fly" zone over the country, Zhovkva said Ukraine needs anti-missile systems and anti-aircraft systems "because daily and nightly Ukraine cities are bombarded by the cruise missiles."

Zhovkva denied the Russian claim that it controls the entire city, now believed to be home to about 100,000 remaining civilians. But he said the Russians control part of it.

"Ukrainian armed forces are still in town," he said. "They are concentrated now mainly on the Azovstal steel plant. And they are concentrated there together with the civilians. And many of the Ukrainian soldiers are wounded."

He criticized the U.N. secretary general's request to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, saying he was not authorized to speak on behalf of the Ukrainian government

"This is not a good idea to travel to Moscow. We do not understand his intention to travel to Moscow and to talk to President Putin."

Austrian opposition to Ukraine membership in EU 'shortsighted'

The Austrian foreign minister's comments that Ukraine should not be offered membership in the European Union is drawing stiff criticism in the besieged nation. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg said he supports closer ties between Europe and Ukraine short of full membership. One option would be allowing Ukraine to join the EU's economic zone, he said.

"We are disappointed with the statements of the Austrian Federal Foreign Minister on Ukraine's European future,"  Ukraine Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said Sunday. "We consider them strategically short-sighted and not in the interests of a united Europe."

Bipartisan support for new Ukraine aid package

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they would stand behind another $800 million in aid to Ukraine unveiled by President Joe Biden last week. The aid package includes heavy artillery weapons, tactical drones and additional economic support.

“If President Biden asks for more money in order to support Ukraine, either militarily or for humanitarian relief, then I will support him in that, and I believe all of the Democrats will,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told “CNN SOTU” host Dana Bash on Sunday.

Republican Indiana Rep. Victoria Spartz also expressed enthusiasm for the aid package while speaking to Bash from Kyiv. But the Ukrainian-American said she hasn’t seen how humanitarian aid from the Biden administration has helped on the ground in Ukraine.

“I haven't seen them do even humanitarian missions. Nothing is happening here. So, I think they do need more security assistance, but we also need to ask some questions," she said. "What's happened with another $10 billion that we provided? Because I haven't seen it on the ground anywhere at all.”

Kharkiv feels wrath of Russian invasion

While the world mourns the battering taken by Mariuspol, 260 miles to the north the city of Kharkiv has quietly been overwhelmed by Russian artillery. The vast majority of Kharkiv's 1.4 million residents have fled. Mayor Ihor Terekhov says Russia is "furiously bombing" his city as shells and rockets continue to smash Kharkiv’s historic center and residential areas in the most intense assaults outside Mariuspol. Mayor Ihor Terekhov says Russia is "furiously bombing" his city, that an estimated 2,000 high-rise buildings have been destroyed.

Oleksandr Zuiev 46, said he never believed Russian forces would target civilians – and never expected his own apartment to come under fire.

"I was wrong," Zuiev told the Kyiv Independent. "It’s still hard to believe that this is happening in the 21st century."

US official: Russia has 'already lost'

Deputy national security adviser Jon Finer said Sunday that from the U.S. perspective, Russia "has already lost" in Ukraine, noting the many ways Russian President Vladimir Putin has not achieved his goals.

"They have intended to divide the West. They have resulted in a West and a NATO alliance that is much more united than it's ever been," he said. "They thought that they would unsettle and undermine and maybe even overthrow the Ukrainian government. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is firmly entrenched in power and Ukrainian democracy continues."

Finer said Russia is more isolated in the world, its economy is weaker, and its military is "failing at virtually every one of their initial objectives. And our objective is going to be to continue that trend."

He also would not confirm that there is evidence of a new mass grave in the embattled city of Mariupol but said such an allegation "is wholly consistent with everything that we've seen Russia doing and it should stop."

Zelenskyy, Turkish president speak ahead of Erdogan talks with Putin

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he spoke by phone Sunday with Turkish President Erdogan, one day before Erdogan was scheduled to meet with Putin.

"I stressed the need for immediate evacuation of civilians from Mariupol, including Azovstal, and immediate exchange of blocked troops," Zelenskyy said. He said the men also discussed the peace talks process, ways to guarantee security for Ukraine and global food supply issues damaged by the war.

On Saturday, Turkish officials said Ankara will close Turkish airspace to Russian civilian and military flights between Russia and Syria. But Turkey, a NATO member that has good relations with Russian and Ukraine, has balked at joining the West in its strong economic sanctions against Russia.

British intelligence: Ukrainian resistance strong in Donbas

Ukraine repelled numerous Russian assaults in the Donbas last week, the British Defense Ministry reported Sunday. Russia did make some territorial gains, but Ukrainian resistance was strong "across all axes" and inflicted significant cost on Russian forces, the intelligence report said.

"Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstitute, re-equip and reorganize forces from prior offensives are likely hindering Russian combat effectiveness," the report said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has steadfastly maintained that the war is going according to plan.

Russia rejects concerns that it will use chemical, nuclear weapons

The United States is preparing to falsely accuse the Russia of using chemical, biological, or tactical nuclear weapons, a top Russian military leader says. Chief of Russian Radiation, Chemical, and Biological Protection Force Igor Kirillov said the alleged plan is a reaction to Russia’s success in its "special operation" in Ukraine – Russia has refused to describe its invasion as a war. Western intelligence officials had warned that Russia might resort to internationally banned weaponry if its invasion continues to face setbacks. 

"In March-April of this year alone, the leadership of Western countries regularly made provocative statements about the possibility of Russia using weapons of mass destruction," he said.

Ukrainian officials: 6 dead in Russian strike on Black Sea port city of Odesa

At least six people were killed, including a 3-month-old infant, in a Russian strike in the Black Sea port city of Odesa, Ukrainian officials said Saturday.

“The war started when this baby was 1 month old. Can you imagine what is happening?” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said. “They are just bastards. ... I don’t have any other words for it, just bastards.”

Russia's firing of cruise missiles on the region came on the eve of Orthodox Easter. 

"Nothing sacred," said Andriy Yermak of the president's office on Telegram.

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Contributing: The Associated Press