2 million Ukrainians evacuated to Russia face hardships; watch first lady Olena Zelenska address Congress: Ukraine updates

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The Pentagon is sending four more rocket artillery launchers to Ukraine as its defense against Russia in the eastern part of the country continues in what has become an increasingly brutal war of attrition, the U.S. military’s top leaders said Wednesday.

The four High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems will bring to 12 the number of long-range missile launchers provided to the Ukrainian military, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

The HIMARS systems can fire rockets with precision more than 40 miles and have been used to destroy Russian command posts and supply depots.

Russia’s war aims have been trimmed since mid-April after it abandoned its offensive against the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. President Vladimir Putin has redeployed Russian forces into eastern Ukraine and waged a war reliant on saturating towns and villages with tens of thousands of rockets per day, said Army Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Russia is keeping up its relentless shelling, and that’s a cruel tactic that harkens back to the horrors of World War I,” Austin said.

Other developments:

►Despite focusing its war effort on the mineral-rich Donbas region, Russia has only gained 6 to 10 miles of Ukrainian territory since April, Milley said. He cited the “incredible cost in terms of Russian casualties and destroyed equipment.”

►Syria, one of Russia’s closest allies, announced it is formally breaking diplomatic ties with Ukraine in response to a similar move by Kyiv. 

►The Biden administration is expected to announce more military aid for Ukraine later this week, said John Kirby, the White House’s National Security Council coordinator. 

►Ukrainian missiles struck and seriously damaged a key supply bridge for Russian troops in southern Ukraine, said the Moscow-backed administration for Russia-controlled southern Kherson. The bridge remained open for traffic. 

USA TODAY ON TELEGRAM: Join our Russia-Ukraine war channel to receive updates straight to your phone.

‘While Russia kills, America saves’: Ukraine first lady thanks Congress

Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska addressed Congress on Wednesday, urging the U.S. to provide more weapons for her country’s fight “for our shared values of human life.” 

Zelenska thanked the U.S. for the billions of dollars already committed since Russian troops rolled into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

“You help us and your help is very strong,” Zelenska said. “While Russia kills, America  saves, and you should know about it. We thank you for that.”

Zelenska showed photos of children and families destroyed by Russia’s unrelenting missile attacks on Ukraine’s cities. She pleaded for more U.S. air defense weaponry to fend off the Russian military — “not to kill children in their strollers.”

Zelenska met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday and President Joe Biden on Tuesday, who tweeted after their meeting, “First Lady of Ukraine Olena Zelenska embodies the same tenacity and resilience as the country she hails from.”

Ukrainians evacuated to Russia face hardships

Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees have been forced from Russian-controlled cities to Russia, stripped of their passports, subjected to interrogations and strip searches, and barred from returning to their homeland, U.S. and Ukrainian authorities say. Both countries estimate that up to 2 million Ukrainians have been relocated to Russia. Russia says the refugees willingly accept humanitarian evacuations but Ukraine says it’s a forced exodus and a war crime.

“President Putin’s filtration operations are separating families, confiscating Ukrainian passports, and issuing Russian passports in an apparent effort to change the demographic makeup of parts of Ukraine,” the U.S. State Department said in a statement last week.

Evidence is mounting that Russian authorities are detaining or “disappearing” thousands of Ukrainian civilians, the statement said. Those detained or “filtered out” include Ukrainians deemed threatening because of their potential affiliation with the Ukrainian army, territorial defense forces, media, government and civil society groups, the statement said. 

Europe to cut gas usage 15% amid Russian cutbacks

European nations should immediately cut natural gas use by 15% or face cold homes and struggling economies this winter, the European Commission recommended Wednesday.

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned that Russia is using gas as a weapon in its war with Ukraine and said the cutback was an “aspirational,” voluntary goal that could become mandatory if gas supplies become too tight.

Russia, which has supplied about 40% of Europe’s natural gas in recent years, already has been cutting back and Von der Leyen said thus far European nations have been making up for the shortfall with gas from other countries. 

Energy commissioners from the EU nations meet Tuesday, and support from the EU’s 27 national governments will be needed for any conservation plan.

“Putin is trying to push us around this winter,” von der Leyen said at a news conference in Brussels. “He will dramatically fail if we stick together.”

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White House: Russia following ‘annexation playbook’ used in Crimea

The White House, citing U.S. intelligence, formally acknowledged what Ukraine has been warning for months: Russia is “laying the groundwork” to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory by installing proxy officials and forcing citizens to apply for Russian citizenship as fighting builds in southern and eastern Ukraine.

John Kirby, the White House’s National Security Council coordinator, said Russia was turning to an “annexation playbook” that mirrors its 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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