The Russian invasion of Ukraine showed fresh signs of stalling amid fierce counter-offensives by Ukrainian forces Thursday, as President Biden prepared to hold a high-stakes telephone summit with China’s leader in a bid to dissuade Beijing from providing weaponry and other assistance to Russia’s increasingly bogged-down military.
Mr. Biden will warn Chinese President Xi Jinping during the summit Friday that the U.S. “will not hesitate to impose costs” on Beijing if it militarily backs the Russians, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday.
“China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression,” he said.
China has said U.S. claims that it was considering military support to Russia are groundless.
The prospect of a widening Chinese role in the conflict that is shifting geopolitical fault lines from Europe to the Middle East lurked prominently in the backdrop as Russia’s invasion entered its fourth week. A second American citizen was confirmed to have died in the fighting, reportedly cut down by Russian gunfire in a provincial Ukrainian city while waiting in line to buy bread.
Unable to make major progress against Kyiv and other main targets, Russian forces have increasingly fired on civilians from the outskirts of major Ukrainian cities. U.S. and British military officials monitoring the conflict say the invasion has largely stalled on the ground, with Russian units making minimal progress and suffering heavy losses from well-coordinated Ukrainian resistance forces.
“The vast majority of Ukrainian territory, including all major cities, remains in Ukrainian hands,” British military officials said in an intelligence assessment circulated via Twitter. They noted that Russian forces have been relying heavily on air-launched weapons such as cruise missiles to attack population centers.
A senior Pentagon official, briefing reporters on background, said U.S. officials are picking up signs of morale problems among the Russian forces, who reportedly were not expecting the fierce and sustained response from Ukrainian troops.
“Some of [the low morale] is, we believe, a function of poor leadership, lack of information that the troops are getting about their mission and objectives, and I think disillusionment from being resisted as fiercely as they have been,” the U.S. official said.
Given the delay in achieving their objective of toppling the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and several other major cities, and Moscow’s failure to fully control Ukrainian airspace, the Russian military probably has expended far more missiles than it had planned, the British assessment said.
But there have been waves of Russian airstrikes, including one just before dawn Thursday that Ukrainian officials said killed 21 people and destroyed a school and community center in the town of Merefa, near Ukraine’s battered northeastern city of Kharkiv.
Viacheslav Chaus, the governor of Chernihiv in Ukraine’s north, said his city has experienced “colossal losses and destruction” from Russian artillery and airstrikes. Mr. Chaus told Ukrainian TV that the bodies of 53 people had arrived at city morgues over the previous 24 hours. Other officials said a hostel was shelled, killing a mother, father and three of their children, including 3-year-old twins.
State Department officials confirmed reports that an American citizen was among those killed in Chernihiv, about 90 miles northeast of Kyiv. Citing information provided by his family, The Associated Press identified the American as Jim Hill, a 67-year-old lecturer in Kyiv who was in the town getting medical help for his partner. Mr. Hill was a victim of one of the most notorious events of the war so far, when 10 people were shot and killed while standing in line to buy bread.
Mr. Hill was the second known U.S. citizen to be killed in the conflict, after the killing of journalist and filmmaker Brent Renaud last week while on assignment in the town of Irpin.
Meanwhile, rescuers continued to comb through rubble in search of survivors after a Russian airstrike Wednesday hit a theater where hundreds of civilians were sheltering in the besieged southern city of Mariupol. The building reportedly withstood the brunt of a bomb blast, but the entrance was blocked by debris. Local officials said some people escaped, but the number of casualties remained unknown.
The Russian Defense Ministry denied bombing the theater or a nearby swimming pool complex that local officials said was also hit Wednesday, burying women and children. The Associated Press reported that satellite imagery from the Maxar space technology firm showed the word “CHILDREN” written in large white letters in Russian outside the theater building as recently as Monday — an apparent attempt to deter Russian fighter jets from targeting the facility.
In Washington, Mr. Blinken echoed Mr. Biden’s assertion a day earlier that Russian forces appeared to be committing war crimes against civilians in Ukraine. The secretary of state told reporters that U.S. government officials have begun working with private rights groups to document assaults and prepare possible future charges.
Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations said in a joint statement Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was conducting an “unprovoked and shameful war.”
Mr. Putin delivered another ominous speech late Wednesday in which he lashed out at “scum and traitors” within Russian society. It signaled what is likely to be an expansion of a crackdown on internal domestic opposition to the Ukraine invasion. Mr. Putin mocked the idea that U.S. and Western economic sanctions would force the Kremlin to change course.
The invasion has caused more than 3 million people to flee Ukraine, according to United Nations estimates. Although the exact death toll remains unknown, thousands of Russian soldiers are reported to have been killed, and officials say hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have died.
Despite the losses and sporadic Russian protests against the war, Mr. Putin’s inner circle remains committed to the fight.
Dmitry Medvedev, a longtime Putin confidant who served as president from 2008 to 2012 and is now deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council, accused the Biden administration of “disgusting” Russophobia.
“It will not work. Russia has the might to put all of our brash enemies in their place,” Mr. Medvedev told reporters in Moscow.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy followed up an impassioned appeal Wednesday for more U.S. support to Congress with a virtual address to Germany’s federal parliament to ask for more support to turn back the Russian offensive. Despite ongoing talks between Russian and Ukrainian delegations, Mr. Zelenskyy and top aides again insisted that they would accept nothing less than Russia’s full withdrawal and the restoration of areas — including Crimea and eastern Ukraine — that were in Russian hands before the fighting started.
During the Berlin address, Mr. Zelenskyy invoked the long Cold War fight that led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall and condemned Russia for the dire situation in the embattled southern city of Mariupol. “Everything is a target for them,” he said.
Chinese military support
The Biden administration hopes to persuade China to use its influence on Moscow to prevent a deeper catastrophe in Ukraine. Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi recently signed a far-reaching strategic cooperation agreement, and Beijing is in a position to throw Moscow an economic and military lifeline in the face of tightening Western sanctions.
Still, there has been little sign that the Chinese are interested in helping. Analysts say Beijing is carefully studying the evolving dynamics of the invasion to turn the crisis to its own geopolitical benefit.
China has spent this week denying claims by U.S. officials that Russia has reached out to Beijing seeking military assistance. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian accused Washington on Tuesday of spreading disinformation, calling the United States “immoral and irresponsible” and claiming Beijing is neutral on the war and has consistently pushed for a cease-fire and diplomatic conclusion.
U.S. officials said China is the one guilty of disinformation. They said Beijing has been amplifying Russian propaganda that could be a pretext for Putin’s forces to attack Ukraine with chemical or biological weapons.
Mr. Biden is likely to raise the issue with Mr. Xi during their telephone summit in hopes of convincing the Chinese president of the need for Washington and Beijing to work together to prevent such an attack in Ukraine.
White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan had an intense seven-hour meeting in Rome on Monday with senior Chinese foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi.
Officials said Mr. Sullivan stressed that any attempts by Beijing to help Russia avoid sanctions would be costly for the Xi government.
Mr. Blinken reiterated that point Thursday. He told reporters at the State Department that Washington is “concerned that [Chinese government officials] are considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine.”
He added that Beijing has a chance to make a positive impact. “Instead, it appears that China is moving in the opposite direction by refusing to condemn [Russia’s] aggression while seeking to portray itself as a neutral arbiter,” Mr. Blinken said.
Regional experts say Beijing is keen to pursue its own strategic interests, which include trying to get help from Russia to increase the sophistication of China’s weapons capabilities for a potential future confrontation with the United States.
Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow with the Carnegie Moscow Center, predicts Russian-Chinese symmetry “will be massively accelerated” by the war in Ukraine, with Russia “very likely to move closer to China as a junior partner, providing China with the most advanced designs of weapons [and] most sophisticated parts of its nuclear expertise.”
Beijing is likely to play its cards carefully and “for now China definitely doesn’t want to be seen as supporting Russia,” Mr. Gabuev told a virtual panel discussion hosted Tuesday by the Washington office of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
He said the Xi government is likely to wait until the “Russian economy really finds its bottom and it’s in a state of free fall,” at which point Beijing is likely to seek geopolitical favors from Moscow in exchange for bailing it out.
Mr. Gabuev pointed to a range of possibilities, including the pursuit of Russian support for Beijing in Chinese-Indian border disputes, and in South China Sea territorial disputes, in addition to the pursuit of “the most sensitive weapons systems” that Russia has been reluctant to sell to China.
• Mike Glenn and Jeff Mordock contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.