US, allies hustling to save Ukraine; Rand Paul says US push to get Ukraine into NATO provoked invasion: April 26 recap

Editor's note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Tuesday, April 26. Follow here for the latest updates and news from Wednesday, April 27, as Russia's invasion continues.

A meeting of defense officials from more than three dozen nations Tuesday helped unify the West's efforts to aid Ukraine “win today and build strength for tomorrow," U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.

"Countries all around the world have been stepping up to meet Ukraine's urgent needs," Austin said following the meeting at the U.S. Ramstein Air Base in Germany, during which the U.S. urged for more weapons for Ukraine. “We've got to move at the speed of war."

Austin said Germany, which had balked at providing heavy weaponry to Ukraine, has agreed to send 50 anti-aircraft weapons to the embattled nation now in its third month of a grueling war against Russia's invading forces. On Monday, Austin said Ukraine can win the war if it has the right equipment.

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He said meetings similar to the one Tuesday will be held once a month, either virtually or in person. Before the meeting, Austin had promised to "keep moving heaven and earth" to support Ukraine. The U.S. and its allies have committed more than $5 billion worth of equipment to Ukraine's defense, he said.

"Russia's invasion is indefensible," Austin said. "So are Russian atrocities."

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Latest developments:

►The United Nations said Secretary-General António Guterres and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed in principle at a Tuesday meeting that the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross should be involved in the evacuation of civilians from a besieged steel plant in Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol.

►Officials in Poland and Bulgaria, both members of NATO and the EU, said Tuesday that Russia is suspending their countries’ natural gas deliveries after they refused to pay for their supplies in rubles.

Russia's state communications watchdog has banned, one of the world's largest online chess and social networking platforms, according to the chess site, in an effort to block two articles on its site supporting Ukraine.

►Germany’s Economy Minister Robert Habeck said his country has reduced the share of its oil supply imported from Russia from 35% before the war to about 12%, making an embargo on deliveries "manageable.'' However, Berlin has said it will need longer to do without gas supplies from Russia.

►The European Union intends to reduce its dependence on Russian oil and gas by two-thirds by year's end and to zero by 2028, European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni told the Messaggero daily.

►Mariupol is drawing global notice, but local officials said at least nine people were killed and several more wounded by Russian attacks elsewhere in eastern and southern Ukraine. Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, said Russian forces “continue to deliberately fire at civilians and to destroy critical infrastructure.”

A Ukrainian soldier sits on a armoured personnel carrier on a road near Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, on April 26, 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier sits on a armoured personnel carrier on a road near Slovyansk, eastern Ukraine, on April 26, 2022.

Americans' support for accepting Ukrainian refugees at all-time high

A newly released poll by Gallup showed that 78% of Americans support the U.S. allowing up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees into the country, the amount that President Joe Biden has promised the U.S. will accept.

The level of support is the highest that Gallup has ever found in a survey about various refugee situations, dating back to 1939. Support was bipartisan — 92% of Democrats, 79% of independents and 61% of Republicans — and large majorities across all demographic groups were in agreement.

Before 2022, the highest level of support for refugees entering the U.S. was for allowing "several hundred ethnic Albanian refugees from Kosovo" in 1999, when 66% approved. The only other time a majority of Americans were in favor of the proposed refugees entering the U.S. was in 2018 when 51% supported "several thousand" entering from Honduras and other central American countries.

In 1946, by contrast only 16% approved of allowing "more Jewish and other European refugees than allowed by law."

The poll was conducted April 1-19 and included 1,018 American adults. Its margin of error is plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Sen. Rand Paul: U.S. 'beating the drums to admit Ukraine to NATO' prompted Russian invasion

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., on Tuesday seemed to suggest the reason Russia targeted Ukraine and other countries is because they were “part of Russia,” a remark that sparked criticism he was touting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s talking points.

“While there's no justification for Putin’s war on Ukraine, it does not follow that there's no explanation for the invasion,” Paul told Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

Paul, a non-interventionist, blamed the U.S., including the Biden administration, for “beating the drums to admit Ukraine to NATO” even though Putin described that as a red line. Had Ukraine joined NATO, Paul continued, “we may still have the destruction, but we would also have troops in Ukraine.”

Blinken pointed out the countries Russia has invaded in recent years – Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova – were not part of NATO. Russia, Blinken emphasized, “has not attacked NATO countries.”

“You could also argue the countries they’ve attacked were part of Russia,” Paul responded. “They were part of the Soviet Union.”

The exchange sparked some barbs at Paul on Twitter from critics suggesting he was embracing Putin’s line.

– Maureen Groppe

Mariupol residents forced to work on mass burials for food, mayor says

A third mass grave has been found near the embattled Ukrainian city of Mariupol, and the mayor says Russian occupiers have forced residents to work on the burials. The trench, seen on satellite images, stretches more than 200 yards – and contains thousands of civilian bodies, Mayor Vadym Boychenko said.

"We know about these mass graves because these fascists – and I have no other words – involve the local population for burial," Boychenko told Radio Svoboda. "They told us that you need to work hours (for) food, water. … People are forced to do so."

Weeks of Russian bombardments have devastated the community and shrunk the once-bustling city of more than 400,000 to a small fraction of that number. Russian forces control most of the city; holdouts are centered in and around the sprawling Azovstal steel plant.

A destroyed tank and a damaged apartment building from heavy fighting are seen in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov) ORG XMIT: MAR151
A destroyed tank and a damaged apartment building from heavy fighting are seen in an area controlled by Russian-backed separatist forces in Mariupol, Ukraine, Tuesday, April 26, 2022. (AP Photo/Alexei Alexandrov) ORG XMIT: MAR151

The British Defense Ministry says Russia’s decision to besiege rather than attack the plant means many Russian units cannot be redeployed elsewhere in the country. "Ukraine’s defense of Mariupol has also exhausted many Russian units and reduced their combat effectiveness," the British assessment says.

Explosions heighten worries about Transnistria

Recent security incidents in a Russian-backed separatist region of Moldova have raised the U.N.'s concerns and thrusted the sliver of land known as Transnistria into the headlines of the Ukraine war coverage.

Explosions rang out Monday and Tuesday in Transnistria, a territory of nearly 500,000 people alongside the southwestern Ukrainian border that broke away from Moldova during the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.

Transnistria has not been recognized by any country, but the presence of 1,500 Russian troops and an estimated 20,000 tons of Soviet-era weapons, ammunition and explosives within its land have led to longstanding worries that it could be used as a launching point for a Russian invasion into Ukraine or Moldova. Such an aggression at this point could further expand the war.

"It's the reality we're seeing, the surreal reality. That's what really worries a lot of people," said Olena Khorenjenko, 33, a Ukrainian refugee who fled to Moldova and is familiar with Transnistria.

-- Trevor Hughes

Western leaders decry inflammatory remarks by Russian foreign minister

Western leaders on Tuesday denounced an attempt by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to change the narrative of the war in Ukraine and his suggestion that nuclear weapons could come into play.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the threat "dangerous'' and "irresponsible'' a day after Lavrov said the possibility of nuclear war “should not be underestimated,'' adding that “the danger is serious.”

Lavrov also accused NATO of fighting a proxy war and “pouring oil on the fire” with its support for Ukraine, a notion rejected by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in an interview with British station Talk TV. Russia has singled out Britain for criticism after a U.K. government minister said it was legitimate for Ukraine to hit fuel depots in Russia with U.K.-supplied weapons.

"It’s very, very important that we don’t accept the way that the Russians are trying to frame what is happening in Ukraine,” Johnson said. “They are trying to frame this as a conflict between Russia and the West, or Russia and NATO. That’s not what is going on.”

British defense minister says strikes into Russia 'legitimate'

Ukraine has the right to use Western-provided weapons to strike military targets on Russian soil, U.K. Defense Minister James Heappey said. Such strikes aimed at disrupting supply lines are "entirely legitimate," he told the BBC.

Heappey also dismissed a top Russian diplomat's assertion that the danger of a nuclear conflict is "serious" and "real." Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the statements on Russian TV, accusing Ukrainian leaders and NATO of provoking Russia by "pouring oil on the fire" with the advanced weaponry. Heappey said the likelihood of nuclear war is "vanishingly small" since it would not be in the best interests of any country.

Blinken: U.S. beginning process of reopening embassy in Ukraine

The State Department said U.S. diplomats began returning to Ukraine by making day trips to temporary offices in the western city of Lviv from neighboring Poland, starting Tuesday.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that he expects diplomats to first work out of Lviv before going back to Kyiv after assessing how the embassy there can be securely reopened.

“We want to have our embassy reopened and we’re working to do that,” he said.

The U.S. relocated its embassy operations to Poland days before Russia began its invasion on Feb. 24. Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, urged a speedy reopening.

“All our European partners are already back there,” Risch said. “We need people on the ground to help Ukraine meet its needs immediately.”

Ukrainians' defense of their country impresses Blinken

During Tuesday's hearing with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said his recent trip to Ukraine left an indelible impression.

Traveling to Kyiv by train, he passed mile after mile of Ukrainian territory that Russia falsely thought it could seize in a matter of weeks. He said Ukrainians won the battle for Kyiv and the city is coming back to life.

“For all the carnage that Russia’s brutal invasion continues to inflict, Ukraine was and will continue to be a free and independent country,” he said. “It's impossible not to be moved by what the Ukrainians have achieved.”

Asked for his assessment of what’s happening in Russia, Blinken said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda system is hard to penetrate, but citizens are increasingly feeling the effects of sanctions. Still, “I think what we’re seeing is the Russian people, to the extent that they’re informed, continue to support for the most part President Putin,” he said.

– Maureen Groppe

'Unjustified': Sweden upset as Russia ousts four diplomats

Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde lashed out at Russian officials for expelling four Swedish diplomats, calling the action "unjustified and disproportionate." By expelling Western diplomats, Russia is intensifying its international isolation, she said on Twitter. Three Russian diplomats were expelled from Sweden earlier this month.

"Sweden will respond appropriately to Russia's unwarranted actions," Linde said.

On Monday, media outlets in Sweden and Finland reported that both nations will apply next month to join NATO. One of Russia's stated reasons for its invasion of Ukraine was concern over NATO expansion.

Pentagon wants to ensure Russia can't 'conduct this kind of invasion again'

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby on Tuesday reiterated the Defense Department’s interest in seeing Russia weakened so it cannot threaten its geographic neighbors.

“Russia continues to isolate itself, its economy is in tatters, its military has been depleted in many ways … they are a weaker military, they are a weaker state right now,” Kirby said in an interview with CNN. “We don't want to see Russia able to conduct this kind of invasion again in the future.”

Kirby also responded to comments made by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov on raising the specter of nuclear war, calling them “obviously unhelpful, not constructive and certainly not indicative of what a responsible nuclear power ought to be doing in a public sphere."

– Ella Lee

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine: US, allies 'move at speed of war' to save nation