Washington condemned reports that a Russian airstrike had destroyed a maternity hospital in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol on Wednesday, as U.S. officials struck down a Polish proposal to transfer Russian-made jets to a U.S. air base and then on to Ukraine.
"Sovereign nations can decide for themselves what they want to do," Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said. "But this idea, the proposal of transferring these jets to our custody for then transferring to Ukraine, that is something that we are not going to explore right now."
A U.S. intelligence assessment said such a transfer would be considered "high risk," Kirby said, and could be seen as an escalation by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched the invasion of neighboring Ukraine two weeks ago.
Russia criticized Poland's offer to send the jets to a U.S. air base in Germany, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday calling it a "potentially dangerous scenario."
At the White House, press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday: "I think it's pretty clear, doesn't require a military expert, to understand why having planes fly from a U.S. air base into a contested part of the country where there is a war is not in our interest and not in NATO interests."
The hospital attack led Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to again call on NATO to impose a no-fly zone in Ukraine, declaring, "You have power but you seem to be losing humanity."
The U.S. has resisted that call, noting that a no-fly zone requires enforcement, which would effectively draw the U.S. into a direct confrontation with Russia.
Ukraine warns Russia
On Wednesday, Zelenskyy tweeted what appeared to be footage of a birthing center, its walls painted in cheerful shades of green and yellow, now reduced to shattered windows, splintered doors and hastily abandoned machinery.
The number of civilians killed in the attack on the hospital was not known. Russia has not commented on the bombing allegations. It has denied targeting civilians in its invasion of Ukraine.
The attack on Mariupol has changed the two-week-old conflict into an even greater challenge for Russian forces, Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovich warned.
"Now, it's going be a completely different war," he said in Russian on Twitter.
The White House and Pentagon on Wednesday said they could not confirm reports of the hospital attack.
"If it's true — and we have no reason to doubt that it's true, we just can't independently verify — I mean, it's just another indicator of the supreme sacrifices that the Ukrainian people are making that they shouldn't have to make," Kirby said.
Psaki said that "as a mother — I know a number of you are mothers yourself — it is horrifying to see the type of — the barbaric use of military force to go after innocent civilians in a sovereign country."
Earlier Wednesday, Russia announced plans for new cease-fires to allow civilians to leave several parts of Ukraine besieged by Russian forces, even as Ukrainian officials accused Moscow of shelling another evacuation route in the southern part of the country.
When asked by VOA whether the Pentagon considered attacks on humanitarian corridors a war crime, Kirby said: "The Pentagon is not making judgments on war crimes. We'll leave that to the experts. What I would tell you is that short of stopping the invasion — which is really what needs to happen here — short of that, we want to see that innocent civilians are given safe passage and not being harmed."
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Russia had confirmed evacuation routes would lead out of Sumy, Mariupol, Enerhodar, Volnovakha, Izyum and several towns near the capital, Kyiv. Vereshchuk said 5,000 people were able to evacuate Sumy on Tuesday.
But in Mariupol, where a Russian siege has left the southeastern port city with dwindling supplies of electricity, heat, food and water, efforts to get people out Tuesday failed, and Vereshchuk said Russian forces had fired on a humanitarian cargo convoy.
"The situation in Mariupol is apocalyptic," Red Cross spokesperson Ewan Watson said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said Wednesday that Russia's proposals to create humanitarian corridors from Ukraine to Russia were "absurd."
"It's offensive to suggest the Ukrainian people should seek refuge from the very government that has demonstrated such disregard for their lives," Blinken said.
More defense to Ukraine
A senior U.S. defense official told reporters Wednesday that the United States was in talks with Ukraine and other "allies and partners" to provide Kyiv with defensive weapons that do not involve more air defense capabilities.
The U.S., however, has deployed two Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries in Poland, according to Marine Captain Adam Miller, U.S. European Command spokesperson. Miller said in a statement Wednesday that the missile batteries, normally stationed in Germany, were repositioned at Poland's invitation.
"This defensive deployment is being conducted proactively to counter any potential threat to U.S. and allied forces and NATO territory," Miller said.
In other developments Wednesday, the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, site of the world's worst nuclear disaster nearly 36 years ago, lost power after its power grid source was damaged, according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Kuleba tweeted that the plant was relying on reserve diesel generators with the capacity to power it for 48 hours, after which the cooling of spent nuclear fuel would halt, raising the possibility of radiation leaks.
"Putin's barbaric war puts entire Europe in danger. He must stop it immediately," tweeted Kuleba, who also called on the global community to demand that Russia impose a cease-fire to allow for repairs.
Kremlin spokesman Peskov told reporters Wednesday that the United States was waging an "economic war on Russia." His comments came a day after U.S. President Joe Biden announced a ban on Russian oil and other energy imports.
The U.N. refugee agency said Wednesday that more than 2.2 million people had fled Ukraine. More than half have gone to Poland.
Kuleba and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were scheduled to meet Thursday in Turkey to discuss the situation. Kuleba said he would propose a direct meeting between Zelenskyy and Putin.
Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb and National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.