Ukraine forces fight to keep Mariupol; Russians likely exposed to radiation at Chernobyl: April 20 recap

Editor's note: On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his troops would not storm the steel mill in Mariupol and instead will block exitsThis page recaps the news from Ukraine on Wednesday, April 20. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Thursday, April 21.

Ukrainian forces continued to fight in the besieged city of Mariupol on Wednesday after a Russian ultimatum to troops holed up in the Azovstal steel mill to lay down their arms passed without a mass surrender.

About 1,000 civilians, including women and children, were still trapped in the steel mill along with Ukrainian soldiers, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Wednesday. 

Zelenskyy said Russia has stonewalled Ukraine’s attempts to negotiate a safe exit for them. “We are open to different formats of exchange of our people for Russian people, Russian military that they have left behind,” he said.

Ukraine also has tried to get Russia to agree on a humanitarian corridor to evacuate the 120,000 people who Zelenskyy said remain under siege in Mariupol.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk added the planned evacuation had failed because of Russia wouldn't observe a cease-fire. "The humanitarian corridor didn’t work as planned," she said.

Vereshchuk also charged that “due to the sloppiness” of the Russian military, it has failed to timely deliver those who were willing to evacuate to an area where Ukrainian buses were waiting for them.

She said that efforts to evacuate civilians from Mariupol will resume Thursday. 

Amid the siege in Mariupol and a shift in the fighting to eastern Ukraine, U.S. officials are also considering a new military aid package for Ukraine.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told CNN Wednesday that another round of security assistance would be announced "in very short order."

Four flights of U.S. arms, including howitzers, arrived in eastern Europe in the last 24 hours, part of the $800 million aid package approved last week, according to a senior Defense Department official.

U.S. troops have begun training about 50 Ukrainians to use the howitzers, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly about military operations. The training will take about a week and is occurring outside Ukraine. Those Ukrainians will then train their own forces on the equipment.

Meanwhile, Russia continues attacks in eastern Ukraine and to reinforce its troops in the region for a broader offensive. The Russians have moved artillery units, headquarters staffs and helicopter units into the eastern Ukraine to support

In the last 24 hours, four additional Russian battalion tactical groups have been sent into Ukraine, the official said. The battalions, of about 800 to 1,000 troops, have been built up over the last few weeks. They include infantry, artillery and logistics units.

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Latest developments:

The U.S. unveiled another round of sanctions Tuesday targeting Russian officials and organizations tied to the Kremlin. One batch announced by the Secretary of State targeted more than 600 individuals involved in suppressing dissent, media and democracy in the region. Another announced by the Treasury Department targeted banks and networks being used to evade U.S. sanctions. 

► More than 5 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, according to a U.N. refugee agency's latest tally as of Wednesday.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Wednesday the country would supply protective equipment like helmets and vests to Ukrainian rescue forces and civilian organizations. Though it has provided humanitarian aid, Israel has refused to supply Ukraine with weapons and other direct military assistance.

►Nuclear regulators have regained phone contact with operators of the Chernobyl power plant more than a month after contact was lost, the International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi said in a statement.

►Russian and Belarusian tennis players will be barred from competing at Wimbledon due to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the event's organizers said Wednesday. 

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Russia now controls 80% of Luhansk region

The Luhansk governor said Russian forces now control 80% of the region, which is one of two regions that make up the Donbas in eastern Ukraine.

One of Russia’s stated goals is to expand the territory in the Donbas under the control of Moscow-backed separatists.

Before Russia invaded on Feb. 24, the Kyiv government controlled 60% of the Luhansk region.

Gov. Serhiy Haidai said the Russians, who renewed their offensive this week in eastern and southern Ukraine, have strengthened their attacks in the Luhansk region.

After seizing Kreminna, Haidai said the Russians now are threatening the cities of Rubizhne and Popasna and he has urged all residents to evacuate immediately.

The Donetsk region, also part of the Donbas, has seen extremely heavy fighting as well — particularly around the port city of Mariupol.

-The Associated Press

Putin tests ICBM missile, Pentagon says no 'threat' to U.S. or allies

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby is downplaying Russia’s launch of a new intercontinental ballistic missile that the Kremlin is counting on as the center of its nuclear strategy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin calls the Sarmat missile uniquely capable of penetrating anti-missile defenses. And Russia’s space agency chief Dmitry Rogozin provocatively called Wednesday’s test flight “a present to NATO.”

But Kirby said “Russia properly notified the United States under its New START obligations that it planned to test this ICBM. Such testing is routine. It was not a surprise. We did not deem the test to be a threat to the United States or its allies.”

Holocaust survivor dies in basement of besieged Mariupol 

A 91-year-old Holocaust survivor has died in a basement in the besieged Ukrainian port of Mariupol.

The Auschwitz Memorial announced the death of Vanda Semyonovna Obiedkova.

The Jewish organization reported that her daughter shared the news after arriving with the rest of her family at a safe location, saying she died April 4, pleading for water in a freezing basement.

She was 10 years old when the Nazis occupied Mariupol and killed thousands of Jews in a single day, including her mother. She survived in a basement then, and died in a basement in the same city 81 years later.

Russians who seized Chernobyl likely exposed themselves to radiation

Workers at the Chernobyl nuclear power facility, the site of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986, say Russian troops dug trenches in contaminated soil and even stole radioactive materials after seizing control of the plant last month, likely exposing themselves to harmful levels of radiation

Thousands of tanks and troops rumbled into the forested Chernobyl exclusion zone in the earliest hours of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, churning up highly contaminated soil. 

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For more than a month, some Russian soldiers bunked in the earth within sight of the massive structure built to contain radiation from the damaged Chernobyl nuclear reactor. A close inspection of their trenches was impossible because even walking on the dirt is discouraged.

Some soldiers even stole highly radioactive materials as souvenirs or possibly to sell.

“I think from movies they have the imagination that all dangerous small things are very valuable,” Valerii Semenov, the plant’s main security engineer, told The Associated Press.

Ukraine foreign ministry says four-day 'humanitarian pause' is necessary

The Ukrainian foreign ministry on Wednesday said a four-day "humanitarian pause" was necessary to evacuate civilians after the United Nations chief called for a brief halt to hostilities for Easter.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Tuesday called for the four-day pause beginning Thursday to observe Holy Week in the Orthodox Christian tradition. Guterres said it was even more necessary given the intensified attacks in eastern Ukraine this week

"We fully share the view that the humanitarian pause is necessary for the safe evacuation of thousands of civilians who wish to leave the dangerous zones of ongoing and possible hostilities, especially from the long-suffering Mariupol," Ukraine's foreign ministry said in a statement Wednesday.

– Ryan Miller

Ukrainian soldiers walk on a destroyed bridge in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, on Wednesday.

Yellen, Ukraine official walk out of Russia's G-20 remarks

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Ukraine's Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko walked out of a Group of 20 meeting Wednesday as Russia's representative started talking.

Several finance ministers and central bank governors also left the room, according an official familiar with the meetings, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the event was not public. Some ministers and central bank governors who attended the meeting virtually turned their cameras off when the Russia representative spoke, the person said.

The incident came amid the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings, in which finance heads gather to tackle the world's most pressing issues. The brutal effects of Russia’s war against Ukraine have taken center stage, and Treasury officials said earlier this week that Yellen would try to avoid contact with Russian officials who plan to attend some Group of 20 events virtually.

President Joe Biden has said that Russia should not remain a member of the G-20, an international body of the world's biggest economies that promotes economic cooperation between countries.

What a new phase of war means for Ukrainian citizens in the east

Elina Miliushnikova watched her 7-month-old son sleep in his crib late Tuesday in her darkened Kharkiv apartment, hours after Russian rockets blasted the district where her parents live.

"Today we are really sad and depressed," Miliushnikova, 31, told USA TODAY via WhatsApp before retreating to the building's basement for the night. "All day we hear the sound of rockets."

Nearly two months into the war, Russian forces are escalating attacks on eastern Ukraine in what officials from both nations say marks a new phase of the invasion. Civilians concerned about the renewed assaults this week are stocking up on supplies, preparing exit plans and calling out to the world for assistance. Read more about their efforts here.

– Grace Hauck

Kremlin: Ukraine given draft of Russia's demands

MOSCOW – The Kremlin’s spokesman says Russia has presented Ukraine with a draft document outlining its demands as part of peace talks and is now awaiting a response from Kyiv.

Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters Wednesday that Russia has passed on a draft document containing “absolutely clear, elaborate wording” to Ukraine and now “the ball is in their court, we’re waiting for a response.”

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Peskov didn’t give further details. He blamed Ukraine for the slow progress in negotiations, and claimed that Kyiv constantly deviates from previously confirmed agreements. “The dynamic of work on the Ukrainian side leaves much to be desired, the Ukrainians do not show a great inclination to intensify the negotiation process,” he said.

Ukraine presented Russia with its own draft last month in Istanbul, where the two sides held talks aimed at ending the conflict. It has been unclear how regularly the two sides have spoken to each other since then.

US considering new Ukraine military aid package, including artillery

U.S. officials are considering a new military aid package for Ukraine that includes American artillery cannons while working with allies in eastern Europe to send them Soviet-era long-range rockets to reach deeper into Russian lines, a Defense Department official said Wednesday.

The new arms would follow an $800 million package approved last week that included howitzers. It comes as Russia has focused its forces in eastern Ukraine, where artillery and armored vehicles are expected to play a central role in the fighting.

The official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, said that more military aid will likely be sent to Ukraine in coming months. The U.S. artillery will come from existing stocks and not affect readiness, the official said.

When asked by a reporter Tuesday whether his administration would be sending more artillery to Ukraine, President Joe Biden responded, "yes," but did not elaborate.

– Tom Vanden Brook

Estonia will ban Russian flags, symbols in public meetings on May 9

Estonia says it is prohibiting public meetings where people display Russian flags and military symbols during the Victory Day celebrations on May 9, which is traditionally celebrated by the Baltic country’s sizable ethnic-Russian population to mark the end of World War II.

Among the banned symbols are the flags of the Soviet Union and Russia, USSR military uniforms and the black-orange Ribbon of Saint George worn in Russia to mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in WWII. The ban is valid until May 10 and applies to the capital, Tallinn, and its surrounding areas.

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Russia advancing in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukrainian officials say

Russian troops were advancing toward Zaporizhzhia with battles occurring within the region, Ukrainian officials said Wednesday.

The head of the Zaporizhzhia Regional Military Administration, Oleksandr Starukh, described the new advance as "a massive offensive," according to state news agency Ukrinform. The city's regional council also warned of the Russian advance, CNN reported.

Starukh said the area around the town of Polohy had worsened with daily attacks, Ukrinform reported, while the regional council said Russian troops were making advances in the direction of nearby Huliaipole and Pokrovske, CNN reported.

The city of Zaporizhzhia is part of a humanitarian evacuation route from Mariupol that deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said would take take place Wednesday.

Mariupol mayor tells residents to leave besieged city

Remaining residents in the port city of Mariupol should leave as Russian forces encircle the last pocket of Ukrainian defense inside the Azovstal steel mill, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said Wednesday.

Ukrainian deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Facebook a humanitarian corridor for women, children and older people had been agreed upon. Boychenko said buses, including one that that would pick up residents near the steel mill, would be used in the evacuation. Prior attempts relied on private cars as buses were unable to access to besieged city on the Sea of Azov.

“Do not be frightened and evacuate to Zaporizhzhia, where you can receive all the help you need — food, medicine, essentials — and the main thing is that you will be in safety,” Boychenko wrote in a statement issued by the city council.

More than 400,000 people lived in Mariupol before the Russian invasion, with at least half having since fled, Boychenko said. Russian shelling for weeks has left the city flattened and citizens without food or water

Contributing: The Associated Press