Russia announces ICBM test as Ukraine clings to Mariupol

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MUKACHEVO, UKRAINE — Russia and the West traded threats and diplomatic slights Wednesday, as another Russian deadline for Ukrainian forces to surrender the key port city of Mariupol passed without movement, and Moscow’s forces continued pummeling a broad swath of the country’s east.

Russia’s Defense Ministry announced that it had successfully conducted the first test of a new intercontinental ballistic missile that President Vladimir Putin said “is capable of overcoming all missile defense systems” and would make those who “try to threaten our country think twice.”

Putin also claimed, according to Russian news reports, that the nuclear-capable RS-28 Sarmat missile was made using “exclusively” domestically manufactured parts — an apparent shot at Western sanctions, which have kept Moscow from obtaining critical components for other weapons systems it has relied upon in its assault on Ukraine.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the United States, in keeping with existing arms control provisions, was notified of the test ahead of time. But Putin’s comments on him served as a reminder of the military might of his nuclear-armed state, and his potential willingness to escalate a brutal war that seems nowhere near an end.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said April 20 that Russia properly notified the United States about its recent intercontinental ballistic missile test. (Video: Reuters)

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After the Ukraine invasion began, a test launch of a US Minuteman III ICBM was postponed when US officials said they did not want Russia to misconstrue such a display of firepower, or use it as justification to escalate hostilities in Ukraine.

In Washington, Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, along with multiple other world leaders, walked out of a closed-door Group of 20 meeting when Russian officials began to speak, according to three people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s political sensitivity.

Earlier in the week, a Treasury Department official said that Yellen would use the meeting “to voice our strong condemnation of Putin’s brutality” and make clear such gatherings were “reserved for countries that demonstrate respect for the core principles that underpin peace and security across the world.”

Wimbledon on Tuesday barred tennis players from Russia and Belarus from playing in the premier annual tournament that begins in June because of the Ukraine invasion, a decision that will affect two of the world’s highest-ranked players. Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, ranked second in the world, and fourth-ranked women’s player Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, will not be permitted to play, according to the All England Club.

The action was quickly condemned by Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who told reporters that players “are again being made hostages of political intrigues.”

Russian figure skaters were banned from world championships in March, and Russian international and club teams have been banned from soccer competitions by the sport’s governing body. Despite calling Russia’s invasion “reprehensible,” the Association of Tennis Professionals called Wimbledon’s decision “unfair” and said it “has the potential to set a damaging precedent for the game.”

In the southern Ukraine port city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces are making a last stand, their commander issued a dire warning Wednesday, saying his fighters holed up in the Azovstal steel plant were “dying underground.” In audio messages sent to The Washington Post, Maj. Serhiy Volyna of the 36th Separate Marine Brigade, while still resisting against an advancing and much larger Russian force, appealed for other countries to help them secure a way out.

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“While the world is asleep, in Mariupol, the guys are dying,” Volyna said. “They’re suffering losses. They’re being bombed with heavy bombs … torn up by artillery, and they’re dying underground — the wounded and the living there.”

His comments came amid successive Kremlin surrender deadlines, all of which have been refused by the defenders. In their latest move, Russia demanded Ukrainian forces in Mariupol give up their weapons and walk out of the steel plant by 2 pm local time (7 am Eastern) Wednesday or face a bitter end.

Tass, a state-run Russian news agency, on Wednesday reported that a “mop-up operation in Mariupol” was “nearing its conclusion,” citing a statement from a pro-Moscow separatist group in the area. A planned humanitarian corridor to evacuate thousands of women, children and the elderly still in the city also fell through, according to the governor of the Donetsk region, to the northeast of Mariupol. New videos recorded in the city show the lifeless bodies of more than a dozen civilians lying on streets.

Taking full control of Mariupol would tighten the grip of Russian forces along the Sea of ​​Azov coast and help form a land bridge between Russian-occupied areas along the border and the Crimean peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014.

Putin is said by Western defense officials to be determined to take Mariupol and advance in Donbas — the broad region of eastern Ukraine bordering Russia — by May 9, a holiday in Russia known as Victory Day to commemorate the surrender of Nazi Germany at the end of World War II.

Western backers are just as determined to at least stall the Russian onslaught, and continued to pledge their support, even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and commanders in the field said they needed more.

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According to the Pentagon, an influence of aircraft parts sent by the West in the last few weeks has made at least 20 more fighter jets available to the Ukrainian air force. A senior defense official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under terms set by the Pentagon, would not say whether all of the repaired jets are Soviet-origin MiGs, which are part of Ukraine’s arsenal.

Earlier in the conflict, there was also a high-profile push, primarily from Poland, to augment Ukraine’s fleet with more such warplanes, an offer discouraged by the United States as escalatory. This week, the Pentagon official indicated that another offer has been made by a third-party country to send Ukraine whole fixed-wing aircraft to augment its fleet, but noted that it has not happened yet.

A second US official familiar with the issue said the administration wanted to “leave it to that country to determine if they want to speak publicly.”

The second official said that the Biden administration was opposed to the earlier Polish proposal because Warsaw’s intention to send the plans through the US air base at Ramstein, Germany, was judged to be “low reward, high risk” in terms of escalating the Ukraine conflict . But “if other countries want to and are able to provide fighter jets to Ukraine, that is certainly their own sovereign decision that we respect and support.”

“It’s not that we don’t think it’s a good idea,” said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive matter. “Our comments about risks more directly related to that one proposal, as opposed to overall… If another country wanted to provide them with jets, we would not oppose it by any means.”

Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday that the Ukrainians had received aircraft “platforms and parts,” without specifying what that meant. On Wednesday, the senior defense official noted that Ukraine has “been given whole helicopters, including helicopters from the United States.”

The United States announced last week an $800 million military assistance package to Ukraine that included 11 Mi-17 attack helicopters. The helicopters were purchased from Russia years ago to send to US-backed forces in Afghanistan.

In a telephone call Wednesday with his Turkish counterpart, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said any prospect of overcoming an apparent stalemate in negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv to end the conflict “depends solely on Kyiv’s willingness to take into account our legitimate demands,” the ministry said in a statement on its website.

Russia’s goal in negotiations, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a Moscow news briefing, is focused on “demilitarization and denazification and the restoration of the official status of the Russian language, [and] recognition of modern territorial realities, including Crimea as part of Russia and independence of the DNR and LNR.” Those acronyms refer to the southeastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, both part of Donbas, that Russia claimed to have “liberated” and made independent with its invasion.

“If the Kyiv regime is genuinely committed to its publicly expressed and confirmed commitment to negotiate, it must begin to look for realistic options for reaching an agreement,” Zakharova said.

A United Nations majority voted not to recognize the 2014 Crimea annexation, and Ukraine has said it will not negotiate away any of its territory. Turkey has sought to mediate the conflict and hosted a round of talks between the two sides last month.

Zakharova also said that the Russian side had given Ukraine new peace proposals on Friday, but that Kyiv had not yet responded to them. Ukrainian negotiators “are using their favorite tactics: dragging out, refusing earlier reached interim agreements, public repudiation of what was agreed upon,” she said.

In response, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelensky, told the Ukrainian news outlet Strana that “the Russian Federation loves to make loud statements in order to put pressure on this or that process.”

Podolyak said that during the last round of negotiations in IstanbulRussian officials were given a “formulated position of the Ukrainian side,” and have now offered counterpositions — nothing more.

“Then it is our turn to study, compare and draw conclusions. Including of a political and legal nature,” Podolyak said.

He downplayed Russia’s description of the current proposals, which Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described as a “draft document” that “has been handed over to the Ukrainian side, which includes absolutely clear formulations worked out,” according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency .

Meanwhile, Russian Education Minister Sergei Kravtsov said in Moscow that lessons explaining the objectives of what Russia calls its “special operation” in Ukraine will start in Russian schools on Sept. 1, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Children, Kravtsov said, “we were simply showered with disinformation, which is not credible at all, with fake news about our country.” The lessons, he said, would be held on Mondays, along with flag-raising ceremonies and singing the national anthem.

Russia has banned the media’s use of the words “war” and “invasion” in reference to the Ukraine operation, and has closed down virtually all independent news sites in the country.

DeYoung and Demirjian reported from Washington. Amy Cheng in Seoul; Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia; Adela Suliman in London; and Matt Bonesteel, Jeff Stein and Paulina Firozi, Claire Parker, Jon Swaine, Sarah Cahlan and Atthar Mirza in Washington contributed to this report.

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