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Rift emerges among NATO allies as U.S. rejects Poland’s offer on jets for Ukraine

The surprise proposal by Poland came the same day the U.S. moved to ban imports of Russian oil and Europe backed Ukraine with military aid that has helped a fierce defensive stand.
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In a rare sign of disunity among NATO allies, the Defense Department on Tuesday rejected an unexpected offer by Poland to have the U.S. take custody of Soviet-era fighter jets that would be transferred to Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

U.S. officials said they were blindsided by Poland's announcement, which differed from a previous proposal to have Warsaw deliver the MiG-29 jets to Kyiv directly.

"We will continue to consult with Poland and our other NATO allies about this issue and the difficult logistical challenges it presents, but we do not believe Poland’s proposal is a tenable one," Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

The U.S. has said it would support Poland's or another NATO member's sending jets to Ukraine but has given no indication it would act as an intermediary.

A U.S. official said: "The Pentagon and State Department were not consulted by Poland about this announcement. ... Both departments found out about it when Poland made the announcement today."

The discord between two NATO members came as the U.S. and some of its European allies sought to form a united front on imposing further economic pain on Russia.

The Biden administration announced it was banning imports of Russian oil as Washington, and Europe continued to punish Russian President Vladimir Putin and his cronies with crippling sanctions.

“We’re banning all imports of Russian oil and gas and energy," President Joe Biden said Tuesday from the White House. "That means Russian oil will no longer be acceptable at U.S. ports and the American people will deal another powerful blow to Putin’s war machine."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded by praising the U.S. for taking "a step that will significantly weaken the occupiers, will make them pay for the aggression, answer for the evil that they have done."

"I am personally thankful to the United States president, Biden, for this decision,” he added, according to an NBC News translation of his remarks on Telegram.

Latest developments on Ukraine:

  • The U.S. moved to ban imports of Russian oil, while the U.K. said it will phase out Russian oil and oil products this year.
  • Moscow threatened to stop the flow of gas through pipelines from Russia to Europe.
  • Poland agreed to a deal that would bolster Ukraine's air force by giving Kyiv its Russian-made MiG-29 fighter planes.
  • Russia and Ukraine agreed to a humanitarian corridor in the northeastern city of Sumy, where strikes overnight hit residential buildings and killed civilians, Ukrainian officials said.
  • Two million people have now fled Ukraine to neighboring countries, the U.N. refugee agency said.
  • Coca-Cola announced it was suspending its business in Russia, while Pepsico said it was halting beverage sales.

Ukraine accused Russia of targeting civilians as it began evacuating residents Tuesday from the besieged city of Sumy along the first safe corridor to have been created since Moscow invaded its democratic neighbor nearly two weeks ago, sparking the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

While fierce Ukrainian resistance has been able to stall the Russian ground assault, Moscow was ramping up its air attacks and fueling an exodus of refugees that has reached 2 million, more than half of them seeking sanctuary in neighboring Poland.

Inna Sovsun, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, accused Putin of deliberately terrorizing civilians both from the air and on the ground.

“It seems that Putin’s plans of blitzkrieg have failed, and because they have failed so badly, the Russian soldiers are now turning into cruelty,” Sovsun said on MSNBC. “We have heard from some Russian soldiers who have been held prisoners by the Ukrainian army who directly said that Russian officers are telling their soldiers to shoot at civilians.”

CIA Director William Burns echoed Sovsun's dire assessment in an appearance Tuesday before the House Intelligence Committee.

“I think Putin is angry and frustrated right now,” Burns said. “He is likely to double down and try to grind down the Ukrainian military with no regard for civilian casualties.”

But as Ukraine entered its 13th day of war, Zelenskyy invoked Winston Churchill's famous 1940 rallying cry against the Nazis in a defiant speech that he delivered from his Kyiv office to the British Parliament by video link.

“We will not surrender," Zelenskyy said in Ukrainian to thunderous applause. "We will not fail. We will fight till the end. We will fight on the seas, in the air and defend our land at any cost. We will fight in the forests, fields, beaches, cities, villages, on the streets. We will fight in the hills."

In Washington, Army Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier of the Defense Intelligence Agency told lawmakers that 2,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers had been killed thus far.

The beleaguered and outgunned Ukrainian air force got a big shot in the arm Tuesday when Poland announced that it would give the Zelenskyy government all of its Russian-made MiG-29 fighter planes.

In return, the Poles said the U.S. had agreed to provide them with "used aircraft with corresponding operational capabilities."

It was not immediately clear how many MiG-29s the Poles will deliver to the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany. Poland has been encouraging other former Soviet-bloc countries to do the same.

Russia and Ukraine agreed to a cease-fire in the northeastern city of Sumy early Tuesday to let civilians escape after another night of heavy shelling by Russian forces. Failed efforts to evacuate people trapped in other hard-hit areas across the country have left them without heat, electricity, water and food.

“Let’s try again,” Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter. As of Tuesday afternoon local time, the cease-fire seemed to be holding.

Video posted by the Ukrainian state communications agency showed people in Sumy carrying bags as they stood in the snow to board buses. Those on board waiting to depart for the Ukrainian city of Poltava wore masks and sat surrounded by bags.

The evacuation from Sumy, which included around 20 buses of foreign students, began after the city faced an overnight barrage, with Russian strikes targeting residential buildings and killing more than a dozen people, including two children, according to Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the interior ministry.

NBC News has not verified the numbers of people killed. Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians.

It was not clear how long the evacuation effort would last or whether it would extend to other cities. 

Moscow had offered to allow civilians to travel safely on designated routes from some areas that led to Russia or its close ally Belarus — an offer Ukraine rejected.

In Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv, around 3,000 people left and boarded buses headed toward the capital, the interior ministry said on social media. Elderly and vulnerable people were among those fleeing nearby Russian forces, although a humanitarian corridor there was not officially in effect, officials said.

In the south, efforts to secure safe passage from the encircled port city of Mariupol appeared to have failed once again.

Mariupol faces an extreme humanitarian crisis, and several attempts at evacuations over the weekend ended when Ukrainian authorities accused Russian forces of continuing to shell the area.

The foreign ministry accused Russia of violating another cease-fire agreement by shelling the humanitarian corridor where eight trucks and 30 buses were ready to deliver aid and evacuate residents.

Civilians fleeing from Irpin, near Kyiv
Ukrainian officers evacuate an elderly woman Tuesday as civilians continue to flee Irpin because of Russian attacks.Emin Sansar / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Oil import ban

Biden announced the U.S. ban on Russian oil imports Tuesday morning. The move, which follows urging from Zelenskyy, is perhaps the toughest action to hit Russia's economy over the war to date.

It is likely to push energy prices even higher, even though the U.S. is far less dependent on Russian energy than its allies in Europe are. Around 3 percent of U.S. oil imports came from Russia last year, according to the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers trade association.

The United Kingdom also announced Tuesday that it will phase out imports of Russian oil and oil products by the end of the year.

The transition period will give the market, businesses and supply chains more than enough time to replace Russian imports — which make up 8 percent of U.K. demand, the country’s secretary of state for business and energy, Kwasi Kwarteng, said on Twitter.

“The U.K. is a significant producer of oil and oil products, plus we hold significant reserves,” Kwarteng said in a separate tweet.

Moscow threatened Monday to halt the flow of natural gas from Russia to Germany in response to Berlin’s decision last month to halt the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

“We have every right to take a matching decision and impose an embargo on gas pumping through the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline,” Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said.

The oil giant Shell became the latest Western company to halt operations in the country, announcing Tuesday that it would stop buying Russian oil and gas, in addition to closing all of its service stations across the country.

CEO Ben van Beurden apologized for buying Russian crude oil last week and committed to dedicate profits from remaining amounts it has to a fund. 

As Russia’s isolation has grown since the war began nearly two weeks ago, the Kremlin has warned against the West’s involvement. Zelenskyy has urged greater support for Kyiv and more punishing measures against Moscow.

'We are not afraid'

Russia’s invasion has brought death and destruction but slow progress across Ukraine.

Civilians, carrying bags of belongings and holding children's hands, have fled on packed trains headed west and lined up at Ukraine’s borders to escape.

Two million people have fled to neighboring countries since the conflict began, the head of the U.N. refugee agency, Filippo Grandi, tweeted Tuesday, in what he has called the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

As cities across the country struggled under Russian bombardment, Zelenskyy sought to boost morale Monday. Showing he was at work in Kyiv rather than in hiding, he promised to rebuild the country while condemning Russian forces for targeting civilian infrastructure, like bread factories and churches.

“It is like a nightmare for them,” he said. “They forgot that we are not afraid of police vans, of tanks, of machine guns when the most important thing is on our side — truth.”

Ukraine's military said it had stalled the Russian advance in an update early Tuesday, but the defense minister warned that Russian forces were gathering for a new wave of attacks on key areas, including Kyiv and Kharkiv, the country's second-largest city.

Russia has now committed nearly all of the troops it had amassed around Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official said.

Putin has shown no sign of pulling back in the face of fierce resistance, and his military might significantly overpower Ukraine’s, which Zelenskyy highlighted Tuesday.

He warned in a speech posted on Telegram that Russia still had enough missiles to wreak havoc on Ukrainian cities and renewed his request for the West to implement a no-fly zone above Ukraine. The U.S. and NATO have resisted those calls, fearing a no-fly zone could escalate the conflict into a broader war on the continent.

Civilians have increasingly borne the brunt of Russian airstrikes, with hospitals, schools, residential buildings and vital infrastructure coming under fire. Zelenskyy accused Russian forces of turning cities across the country "into hell."

Mariupol was “surrounded, blocked and especially depleted,” Zelenskyy said Tuesday on Telegram. “The occupiers deliberately cut off communications and blocked the supply of food, cut off electricity.”

A child died from dehydration Monday because of the lack of drinking water in the city, he said.

Russian attacks have halted repairs to damaged infrastructure, including groundwater pumps and water treatment facilities, and left people drinking rainwater and collecting snow, according to Human Rights Watch.

More than 400 civilians have been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began, according to the U.N. human rights agency. The exact figures are likely to be much higher, it added.

The battle for Mariupol, is crucial because its capture could allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014.