KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pressed the West for more powerful weapons as he prepared to meet with top U.S. officials in the war-torn country’s capital Sunday, while Russian forces concentrated their attacks on the east, including trying to dislodge the last Ukrainian troops in the battered port of Mariupol.
Zelenskyy announced the planned visit by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at a news conference Saturday night in a Kyiv subway station. The White House has not commented.
Zelenskyy said he was looking for the Americans to produce results, both in arms and security guarantees. “You can’t come to us empty-handed today, and we are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons,” he said.
The visit would be the first by senior U.S. officials since Russia invaded Ukraine 60 days ago. Blinken stepped briefly onto Ukrainian soil in March to meet with the country’s foreign minister during a visit to Poland. Zelenskyy’s last face-to-face meeting with a U.S. leader was Feb. 19 in Munich with Vice President Kamala Harris.
While the West has funneled military equipment to Ukraine, Zelenskyy has stressed repeatedly that the country needs more heavy weapons, including long-range air defense systems, as well as warplanes.
His meeting with Austin and Blinken was set to take place as Ukrainians and Russians observed Orthodox Easter, when the faithful celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. Speaking from Kyiv’s ancient St. Sophia Cathedral, Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, highlighted the significance of the occasion to a nation wracked by nearly two months of war.
“The great holiday today gives us great hope and unwavering faith that light will overcome darkness, good will overcome evil, life will overcome death, and therefore Ukraine will surely win!” he said.
Still, the war cast a shadow over celebrations. In the northern village of Ivanivka, where Russian tanks still littered the roads, Olena Koptyl said “the Easter holiday doesn’t bring any joy. I’m crying a lot. We cannot forget how we lived.”
Victor Lobush of Kyiv said Ukraine needs more weapons and financial support, and for Western nations “not to buy even a drop of the Russian oil.”
“Actions, not words, are needed,” he said on Independence Square.
The Russian military reported hitting 423 Ukrainian targets overnight, including fortified positions and troop concentrations, while its warplanes destroyed 26 Ukrainian military sites, including an explosives factory and several artillery depots.
Most of Sunday’s fighting focused on the Donbas region in the east, where Ukrainian forces are concentrated and where Moscow-backed separatists controlled some territory before the war. Since failing to capture Kyiv, the Russians are aiming to gain full control over the eastern industrial heartland.
Russian forces launched fresh airstrikes on a Mariupol steel plant where an estimated 1,000 civilians are sheltering along with about 2,000 Ukrainian fighters. The Azovstal steel mill where the defenders are holed up is the last corner of resistance in the city, which the Russians have otherwise occupied.
Zelenskyy said he stressed the need to evacuate civilians from Mariupol, including from the steel plant, in a Sunday call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is scheduled to speak later with Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres Guterres is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Monday and then Moscow and Kyiv. Zelenskyy it was a mistake for Guterres to visit Russia before Ukraine.
“Why? To hand over signals from Russia? What should we look for?” Zelenskyy said Saturday. “There are no corpses scattered on the Kutuzovsky Prospect,” he said, referring to one of Moscow’s main avenues.
Mariupol has seen fierce fighting since the start of the war due to its location on the Sea of Azov. Its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port, free up Russian troops to fight elsewhere, and allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
More than 100,000 people — down from a prewar population of about 430,000 — are believed to remain in Mariupol with scant food, water or heat. Ukrainian authorities estimate that over 20,000 civilians have been killed. Recent satellite images showed what appeared to be mass graves dug in towns to the west and east of Mariupol.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser, called for a localized Easter truce. He urged Russia to allow civilians to leave the steel plant and suggested talks to negotiate an exit for the Ukrainian soldiers.
Podolyak tweeted that the Russian military was attacking the plant with heavy bombs and artillery while accumulating forces and equipment for a direct assault.
During his nightly address to the nation, Zelenskyy accused Russians of committing war crimes by killing civilians, as well as of setting up “filtration camps” near Mariupol for people caught trying to leave the city.
From there, he said, Ukrainians are sent to areas under Russian occupation or to Russia itself, often as far as Siberia or the Far East. Many of them, he said, are children.
The claims could not be independently verified. But they were repeated by Yevheniya Kravchuk, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, on ABC’s “This Week.”
“They have pulled these people from Mariupol — they are put to filtration camps … it’s sort of something that can’t be happening in the 21st century,” Kravchuk said.
Zelenskyy claimed that intercepted communications recorded Russian troops discussing “how they conceal the traces of their crimes” in Mariupol. He also highlighted the death of a 3-month old girl in a Russian missile strike Saturday on the Black Sea port of Odesa.
In attacks on the eve of Orthodox Easter, Russian forces pounded cities and towns in southern and eastern Ukraine. The baby was among eight people killed when Russia fired cruise missiles at Odesa, Ukrainian officials said.
Ukrainian news agency UNIAN, citing social media posts, reported that the infant’s mother, Valeria Glodan, and grandmother also died when a missile hit a residential area. Zelenskyy promised to find and punish those responsible.
“The war started when this baby was 1 month old,” Zelenskyy said. Can you imagine what is happening? They are filthy scum, there are no other words for it.”
For the Donbas offensive, Russia has reassembled troops who fought around Kyiv and in northern Ukraine. The British Ministry of Defense said Ukrainian forces had repelled numerous assaults in the past week and “inflicted significant cost on Russian forces.”
“Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstitute, re-equip and reorganize forces from prior offensives are likely hindering Russian combat effectiveness,” the ministry said in an intelligence update.
The spiritual leaders of the world’s Orthodox Christians and Roman Catholics appealed for relief for Ukraine’s suffering population.
From Istanbul, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I said a “human tragedy” was unfolding. Bartholomew, considered the first among his Eastern Orthodox patriarch equals, cited in particular “the thousands of people surrounded in Mariupol, civilians, among them the wounded, the elderly, women and many children.”
Pope Francis, speaking from a window overlooking St. Peter’s Square, renewed his call for an Easter truce, calling it “a minimal and tangible sign of a desire for peace.”
“The attacks must be stopped, to respond to the suffering of the exhausted population,” Francis said without naming the aggressor.