Washington turned its gaze at Beijing, with U.S. President Joe Biden scheduling a rare phone call Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping, a high-stakes conversation as Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy begged the world for help fighting against a three-week Russian invasion.
China has played an increasingly important role in the conflict amid reports that Russia asked China for military assistance. The U.S. is providing the bulk of military assistance to Ukraine, with Biden announcing another $800 million defense package this week.
"We have made clear our deep concerns about China's alignment with Russia and the potential implications and consequences of that," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.
Friday's call, she said, "is an opportunity for President Biden to assess where President Xi stands. There's been, of course, rhetorical support — or the absence of clear rhetoric and denunciation, or the absence of denunciation — by China of what Russia is doing. This flies in the face, of course, of everything China stands for, including the basic principles of the U.N. Charter, including the basic principles of respect for sovereignty of nations. And so the fact that China has not denounced what Russia is doing in and of itself speaks volumes."
Russia still stalled
As for fighting on the ground, U.S. defense officials say it appears Russian advances remain stalled, making little to no progress as they continue to encounter what has repeatedly been described as a stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces.
Russian forces "are, three weeks in, basically frozen around the country … struggling to fuel themselves and to feed their troops and to supply them with arms and ammunition," a senior U.S. defense official told reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss intelligence.
Russian troops attempting to move on Kyiv, in particular, have failed to get any closer to the Ukrainian capital over the past 24 hours, the official said.
Instead, Russian commanders have been trying to move up artillery units to the front lines and increase mortar attacks in a bid to "wear the city down," the official said.
The fighting, however, seems to be taking a toll only on the Russian troops.
"We have anecdotal indications that Russian morale is flagging," the official said. "Some of that, we believe, is a function of poor leadership, [a] lack of information the troops are getting about their missions and objectives, and I think disillusionment from being resisted as fiercely as they have."
There are also indications that Russian commanders are beginning to question how much longer they can sustain their invasion.
"Just that they're talking about resupply and re-sourcing tells you that they're beginning to get concerned about longevity here," the U.S. official said.
U.S and Western officials also note Russia's missile attacks are increasingly relying on so-called dumb bombs instead of on precision-guided munitions, an indication that Russian forces may be facing shortages.
At the same time, the U.S. and its NATO allies are working on ways to further strengthen Ukraine's defensive capabilities, including answering demands for Russian-made S-300 air defense systems and Russian-made fighter planes.
"We've been in discussion with United States, with Ukraine and also with other allies on the possibility to deploy or to send or to give S-300 systems," Slovak Defense Minster Jaroslav Nad said Thursday after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava.
"We're willing to do so immediately when we have a proper replacement," he said, noting Slovakia currently depends on its S-300s and MiGs for its own defense. "What we're discussing is the options of how to fill in this gap."
U.S. officials say that those discussions are ongoing and that, for now, NATO allies are working to provide Kyiv with other defensive systems that have proved themselves on the battlefield.
"[The Russians are] using a lot of rockets and missiles and artillery, and so there are a number of things that can be used to counter that," Austin told reporters. "We've seen that drones have been very effective. We've also seen having the ability to conduct counterfire with rockets and in artillery is also very effective."
'Freedom and bondage'
Meanwhile, Zelenskyy appealed for Germany's help Thursday, telling the German parliament that a new wall was being erected in Europe "between freedom and bondage."
"And this wall is getting bigger with every bomb that falls on Ukraine, with every decision that is not taken," Zelenskyy said in his video address. He has been asking allies to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine — a request the United States has denied.
Also Thursday, Washington officials turned up the volume in condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying he agreed with Biden's claim that Putin is a "war criminal."
Russia continues to target civilian sites in Ukraine, including a theater in Mariupol where women and children were sheltering on Wednesday, Blinken told reporters.
"Actually targeting civilians is a war crime," he said. "After all the destruction of the past three weeks, I find it difficult to conclude that the Russians are doing otherwise."
But he went on to say that those attacks have to be carefully documented and investigated, and that the U.S. welcomed the efforts of various institutions to do that.
When asked about ongoing virtual peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, Blinken said: "We commend Ukraine for being at the table despite being under bombardment every minute of the day. At the same time, I have not seen any meaningful efforts by Russia to bring this war that it is perpetrating to a conclusion through diplomacy."
On Thursday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Biden's remarks were "absolutely unacceptable and inexcusable."
On the ground
In the besieged southern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, rescue efforts were continuing Thursday at the theater where hundreds of civilians had been sheltering. Satellite images of the site released by the Maxar space technology company showed the word "children" written in Russian on the pavement outside the theater as recently as Monday.
Also Wednesday, Russian airstrikes hit a municipal pool complex where pregnant women and women with children were sheltering, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the regional Donetsk administration.
No casualties were reported from the attack on the pool complex; however, the governor of the northern city of Chernihiv said Thursday that at least 53 people killed in heavy Russian aerial and ground attacks had arrived at morgues in the past 24 hours.
Russia has denied any involvement.
In the meantime, the Ukrainian government said Russia conducted more airstrikes on Mariupol and attacks on other areas of Ukraine early Thursday, including on the town of Kalynivka and city of Brovary outside the capital, Kyiv.
The mayor of the eastern town of Merefa said Russian artillery had leveled a school and community center overnight but did not immediately report any casualties.
VOA White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara and Congressional Correspondent Katherine Gypson contributed to this report. Some information also came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.