Russia steps up Ukraine offensive as Biden increases economic pressure on Putin

Ukraine’s state emergency service said there were at least three airstrikes in the Novokodatskyi district of Dnipro early Friday morning, hitting around a kindergarten school, an apartment building and a two-story shoe factory. At least one person was killed, it said.

Russian strikes also targeted airports in Ivano-Frankiivsk and Lutsk, marking a further expansion of the conflict to the west. Local officials said four people were killed after strikes hit a military airfield in Lutsk.

NBC News has not verified the number of people killed, and Russia has consistently denied targeting civilians.

As Russia makes limited progress and takes on growing losses, the Kremlin moved to bolster its forces. Russian President Vladimir Putin greenlit a plan to bring thousands of fighters from the Middle East to join Russian troops.

Speaking at a security council meeting, Putin said he believed those who want to fight alongside Russian forces should be allowed to, Reuters reported. His defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said there were as many as 16,000 volunteers ready to join the fight.

Humanitarian crisis grows

Russia appeared to be intensifying its attacks on major cities in Ukraine even as it faced growing global condemnation and fueled a growing humanitarian crisis.

Moscow was accused of war crimes in the wake of the deadly airstrike on a hospital in Mariupol, where officials warned a “humanitarian catastrophe” was unfolding amid failed attempts to get residents out and aid into the southern port city.

The city of around 400,000 people has been cut off from access to heat, electricity and water for at least a week during freezing temperatures. It has held out even as fears grow for the fate of its residents.

Moscow said Friday that Russian-backed separatists had captured nearby Volnovakha, a small city in the Donetsk region that has also been encircled and bombarded. NBC News has not confirmed this development and Ukrainian officials have not commented.

After talks in Turkey between the two countries’ top diplomats appeared to make little progress, there was little hope for a swift end to the conflict or the worsening humanitarian situation.

The number of refugees who have fled Ukraine reached 2.5 million Friday, according to the United Nations refugee agency. More than 1.5 million people have sought refuge in Poland, while hundreds of thousands more have fled to other neighboring countries.

Nearly 2 million more have been displaced within Ukraine, leaving their homes and often their families behind to escape the fighting.

The West has voiced growing alarm about the prospect of a chemical or biological attack from Russia.

Zelenskyy dismissed Moscow’s efforts to accuse Ukraine of planning a false-flag attack, which the U.S. and its allies have called out in recent days as a potential cover for Russia’s own plans to do so.

“We are responsible people,” he said in a video address late Thursday. “No chemical or any other weapon of mass destruction has been developed on our land. The whole world knows this. You know this.”

Zelenskyy said Russia’s claims were concerning, warning Moscow that “if you do something of the sort against us,” it should expect to face a swift response from the international community.

U.S. ramps up pressure on Russia

With Russia showing no signs of stepping back from its military offensive, Washington and Europe sought to deliver a fresh financial blow to Moscow.

Biden was set to give a speech Friday morning announcing the U.S. will revoke the country’s “most-favored nation” trade status, the senior administration official said. The change will allow his administration and Congress to slap tariffs on any or all of the goods Russia exports to the United States, potentially impacting goods including caviar, vodka, plywood and more.

The move would come just days after the U.S. banned imports of Russian oil and gas and as the West adds to an ever-growing list of sanctions targeting Russia’s most powerful and wealthy.

The U.S. also warned Russia against seizing the assets of any companies that have joined the exodus of international business from the country.

Stressing that such decisions are up to companies themselves, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a string of tweets that “any lawless decision” to seize the assets of companies leaving “because they want no part of Russia’s war” would “ultimately result in even more economic pain” for the Kremlin.

Vice President Kamala Harris, meanwhile, arrived in Romania’s capital for the next leg of a trip to reassure European allies after completing a visit to Poland.

Kristen Welker, Kayla Tausche, CNBC, Rachel Elbaum and Associated Press contributed.

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