Kyiv March 18, 4:56 a.m.

Moscow March 18, 5:56 a.m.

Washington March 17, 10:56 p.m.

Rescuers began pulling survivors from the rubble of a theater hit by a Russian strike in Mariupol. The invasion’s ground advance slowed, but more missile and other attacks hit civilians. The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting on Ukraine.

Andrew E. Kramer, Michael Schwirtz and Eric Nagourney

KYIV, Ukraine — A day after a Russian strike reduced to rubble a theater in southern Ukraine where hundreds of people had been huddling for shelter, rescuers wading through the debris — even as Russian shells kept falling — began pulling out survivors one by one.

“Adults and children are emerging from there alive,” Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman, Lyudmila Denisova, reported early Thursday as the rescue effort continued at the Drama Theater in Mariupol, a southern port city under siege by Russian forces.

But information was scarce from the desperate city, which has been squarely in Moscow’s cross hairs since the invasion began three weeks ago. With as many as a thousand people, many of them children, reported to have taken shelter at the theater and still unaccounted for, fears remained that whatever hope emerged from the rescue scene Thursday would eventually be eclipsed by despair.

“Our hearts are broken by what Russia is doing to our people, to our Mariupol,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in an overnight public address.

The rescue efforts at the theater came against a fearsome backdrop of thousands of civilian casualties across much of Ukraine. Taking heavy losses on the battlefield, Russian forces have increasingly been aiming bombs and missiles at towns and cities. Unable to capture urban centers, they are leveling them instead, and the toll on civilians is worsening.

In Mariupol, it was people sheltering in a theater where the word “children” was written in huge letters on the pavement on both sides of the building, clearly visible from the air. In Chernihiv, it was people waiting in a bread line. In Kyiv, it was a 16-story apartment building pierced by a missile fragment, and, amid the debris and broken glass outside, a man with a sweatshirt pulled over his head kneeling silently beside a body under a bloody sheet, holding a lifeless hand for several minutes and then staggering away in grief.

As a fourth consecutive day of peace talks Thursday yielded no announcements, and the United Nations Security Council held an emergency session on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, Western officials portrayed the Russian advance as bogged down.

While Russian forces have made a bit of progress in the south and east, said one of the officials, they are stalled outside Kyiv, the capital, where they have taken heavy casualties and — perhaps most surprising — have failed to achieve dominance in the air. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive intelligence assessments.

Given all the setbacks, the Western officials said they were no longer confident that Russia planned a ground assault on Kyiv, a major objective. “An ill-judged assault on a city as well-prepared and well-defended as Kyiv would be a very costly business,” one said. They cautioned that Russia could still decide to assault the city or, failing that, strangle it in a prolonged siege.

As cruise missiles hammered their capital, Ukrainian fighters described several successful, if modest, counteroffensives against Russian forces.

To the east of Kyiv, in the suburban town of Brovary, the thrust of the counterattack focused on artillery, according to Lt. Pavlo Proskochilo, the military commander in the town. He said Ukrainian artillery strikes had in some places forced the Russians to dig in, assuming more of a defensive than offensive posture.

“We hit them in the teeth,” he said. “They are now waiting for reinforcements.”

It was not clear whether Ukrainian forces had actually forced the Russians to pull back in any location, and in outlying towns, the regular booms and thuds of artillery fire were constant through the day.

But it was not just soldiers vowing to take the fight to the invaders.

Outside the apartment building in Kyiv damaged by the missile, Tetiana Vaskovska, a 58-year-old lawyer, angrily surveyed the wreckage of what had been her home of 25 years.

“I know how to shoot,” she said. “Give me a gun.”

In recent days, an increasingly brutal war of attrition has been unfolding on the ground and in the air, with fierce battles raging in the suburbs of Kyiv, and Russian warships on the Black Sea launching missiles at towns around the southern city of Odessa. Eyewitness accounts, official statements and satellite imagery paint a picture of destruction on a vast scale. More than three million people have fled the country.

On Thursday, President Biden heaped unrestrained scorn on President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who ordered the invasion. A day after labeling Mr. Putin a war criminal, Mr. Biden, speaking at the Capitol, called him a “murderous dictator, a pure thug who is waging an immoral war against the people of Ukraine.” On Friday, Mr. Biden will speak with the president of China, Xi Jinping, and plans to warn Beijing not to aid Moscow, his spokeswoman said.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken suggested that Mr. Putin “may be growing more desperate,” and warned that Moscow might be preparing to use chemical weapons and had begun to kidnap local officials in Ukraine and replace them with Mr. Putin’s allies.

The House of Representatives voted, 424 to 8, to suspend normal trade relations with Russia, another blow to a country whose economy is already staggering under Western economic penalties.

In recent days, Mr. Zelensky has been taking his case directly to Western lawmakers, urging them to help Ukraine fight Russia. To the British Parliament he recalled the Nazis’ campaign of terror. To Congress, he spoke of Pearl Harbor. On Thursday, it was Germany’s turn: Mr. Zelensky, addressing the Bundestag, offered multiple references to German atrocities inflicted on Ukraine and Russia, among others, in World War II, and analogies to the Berlin Wall.

“You are like behind the wall again,” he said. “Not the Berlin Wall but in the middle of Europe, between freedom and slavery.”

A British intelligence report said that Russian forces have “made minimal progress on land, sea or air in recent days,” and that they “continue to suffer heavy losses.” U.S. assessments have put Russian military deaths at 7,000, though the figure cannot be independently confirmed.

If Russia has miscalculated, the cost may not be limited to the battlefields of Ukraine. On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron of France, who once famously accused NATO of “brain death,” said that the war had reinvigorated it, giving the military alliance “an electric shock, a wake-up call.”

But for all their struggles, Russian forces are reported to have taken control of large sections of Ukraine, particularly in the east and south. In eastern cities controlled by Russia, witnesses described desolation and ruin, as well as looting by Russian troops, where tens of thousands of people had once lived.

In the eastern city of Volnovakha, the Russian defense ministry declared it “liberated,” but after weeks of bombardment, Moscow’s prize was a landscape of rubble and ash.

About 200 miles north of Mariupol, the city of Izyum has been surrounded by Russian forces for two weeks.

“No water, no light, no heat, no food, no medicine, no communication. The situation is no better than Mariupol,” the deputy mayor, Volodymyr Matsokin, wrote on Facebook. “There is no one to bury the dead. ”

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, Ukraine; Michael Schwirtz from Odessa, Ukraine; and Eric Nagourney from New York. Mark Landler contributed reporting from London; Marc Santora from Lviv, Ukraine; and Glenn Thrush from Washington.

David Moll

President Biden and China’s leader, Xi Jinping, will discuss the war in Ukraine and “other issues of mutual concern” at 9 a.m. Eastern time on Friday, the White House said in a statement.

Azi Paybarah

Italy’s minister of culture said the country will help Ukraine rebuild the Drama Theater of Mariupol, which was destroyed on Wednesday as hundreds of people were hiding there for safety. Minister Dario Franceschini said theaters around the world “belong to the whole humanity.”

Lynsey Addario and Ivor Prickett

Emergency workers in Kyiv escorted residents back into the apartments after their building was destroyed by a missile, one of the latest civilian targets decimated as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine enters its fourth week with no sign of ending.

Nearby a mourner kneels next to a body on the street. In Irpin, a few miles to the north, rescuers who combed through the rubble at another bombing site carry out a woman who was injured.

Russian forces are targeting refugee escape routes, heavily-populated residential areas, schools and hospitals, hoping to force Ukraine into submission. For the past four weeks, photographers with The New York Times and other news organizations throughout Ukraine have been chronicling the war and its toll.

Michael Crowley

WASHINGTON — A day after President Biden branded President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a “war criminal” over civilian deaths in Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Thursday echoed his assessment and said Mr. Putin would be held accountable.

“Yesterday, President Biden said that, in his opinion, war crimes have been committed in Ukraine. Personally, I agree,” Mr. Blinken said, citing a list of horrific Russian attacks that have killed unarmed Ukrainians, including children. “Intentionally targeting civilians is a war crime.”

But the practical obstacles to punishing Mr. Putin are huge, experts said, though his battlefield commanders in Ukraine could be more vulnerable. Complicating matters is the fact that the United States does not officially recognize the International Criminal Court, which is the main forum for prosecuting war crimes.

Some experts said that declaring the Russian leader a war criminal could make it more difficult to negotiate a peace agreement with him, but that it might also give Ukraine and the West some leverage if Mr. Putin sought to bargain for immunity from any prosecution.

The back-to-back comments by Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken marked a clear change in U.S. language on the subject after weeks of noncommittal statements by American officials even as Ukrainian hospitals and apartment blocks were pounded to rubble.

Two weeks ago, the White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters that the United States had “not made conclusions” about whether war crimes were being committed in Ukraine, saying the question was the subject of an official legal review.

Growing evidence of horrific Russian attacks on civilian targets — including the bombing on Wednesday of a Mariupol theater that may have sheltered hundreds of people driven from their homes — has made that position hard to sustain.

Legal experts said U.S. officials must be mindful of not seeming to prejudge complex legal issues that may come to trial, and Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken both couched their assessments in personal terms, stopping short of statements of U.S. government policy.

“I think he is a war criminal,” Mr. Biden said in response to a reporter’s question on Wednesday.

A Senate resolution unanimously approved on Tuesday condemned Mr. Putin for “alleged war crimes” in Ukraine.

“The reason for all their caution is that for any crime, there’s an evidentiary standard that has to be met,” said Oona Hathaway, a professor of international law at Yale Law School who serves on a State Department legal advisory board. “If you’re having a trial, you can’t just say, Yeah we all pretty much assume that he knew what was going on.”

Ms. Hathaway said prosecutors would have to show that Russian commanders had intentionally targeted civilian structures, or struck them during attacks that failed to discriminate between civilian and military targets. In the case of Mr. Putin, prosecutors would have to demonstrate that he issued specific orders tied to those actions.

Apprehending and trying anyone accused of crimes, not least the sitting president of a nuclear-armed nation, is another matter. “There’s no marshal service that goes with the International Criminal Court,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey and a former top State Department official for human rights.

But Mr. Malinowski and others said war crimes investigations can have a powerful deterrent effect. While Russian officials might hope that sanctions against them will someday be lifted, an indictment for war crimes brings a permanent stigma and risk of arrest.

With Russia’s military campaign bogged down and Ukraine claiming to have killed several Russian generals, Mr. Putin’s commanders in the field might have a reasonable fear of being captured and eventually tried for what amounts to mass murder. Frontline troops could also be demoralized by the official investigations.

“The hope is that it creates a disincentive for the most exposed people, who also happen to be the people closest to the fighting,” Ms. Hathaway said.

And it is possible that Mr. Putin would be deposed and could somehow fall into foreign hands. The former nationalist Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, accused of war crimes during the breakup of Yugoslavia, was arrested by Serbian authorities after his 2001 ouster from office and delivered to The Hague for prosecution. (He died during his trial in 2006.)

The concept of international justice for war crimes was established during the Nuremberg trials of Nazi German leaders after World War II. It is based today on the Geneva Conventions, a series of treaties governing the wartime treatment of civilians, prisoners of war and others, which have been adopted by every nation.

Although multiple bodies and nations are investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine, experts said the International Criminal Court offered the best chance for real accountability. Based in The Hague, the court was established in 1998 after separate tribunals prosecuted mass atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, demonstrating the need for a standing judicial body to handle such cases.

Last month, the top prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Karim Khan, announced that he was opening an investigation into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Khan traveled this week to Poland and Ukraine to begin collecting evidence and met virtually with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In an interview with CNN from Ukraine, Mr. Khan said he would investigate whether there were instances where Ukrainian forces mounted attacks from populated areas that could make them legitimate targets. “But even then, it’s no license to use cluster bombs or use disproportionate attacks in concentrated civilian areas,” he added.

The United States has had a fraught relationship with the court and is not among its 123 member nations. President George W. Bush revoked President Bill Clinton’s signature on its founding document, saying he would not accept the court’s jurisdiction over American troops abroad. President Barack Obama cooperated with the court but never sought to make the United States a member.

The administration of President Donald J. Trump was vividly hostile toward the body, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo derided as a “kangaroo court” and biased against Israel. Mr. Trump even slapped sanctions on its top prosecutor and others after she began an inquiry into alleged war crimes by U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“Traditionally, the U.S. has objected to assertion of jurisdiction by the I.C.C. over U.S. nationals because the U.S. never accepted the jurisdiction of the court,” said Todd Buchwald, the head of the State Department’s Office of Global Criminal Justice during the Obama administration. “The question is, how do we think about this now?”

Other bodies could prosecute alleged Russian war crimes. The United Nations or allied countries could establish special tribunals, and individual nations can also assert what is known as universal jurisdiction, a legal concept allowing a nation’s court to try people for human rights crimes. In January, a German court following the principle convicted a former security official for the Syrian government on torture charges.

But the Syrian, Anwar Raslan, had migrated to Germany, where he presumably did not expect to be identified and apprehended.

Russian officials are highly unlikely to make themselves vulnerable to such arrests.

“A very big problem is actually getting people in the dock,” said Matthew Waxman, a law professor at Columbia University who served in senior national security roles in the Bush administration.

“I’m very doubtful that Putin will ever find himself in The Hague,” he added.

Edward Wong contributed reporting.

Farnaz Fassihi and Glenn Thrush

The United Nations offered a dire portrait of widespread human suffering in Ukraine during an emergency session of the Security Council on Thursday, estimating the number of civilian casualties to be 1,900, with 726 people killed — 52 of them children — since the invasion began.

The actual numbers are likely to be much higher.

“Most of these casualties were caused by the use in populated areas of explosive weapons with a wide impact area,” Rosemary A. DiCarlo, the U.N. under secretary for political and peace-building affairs, told the council in a tense and grim afternoon meeting.

U.N.-affiliated international organizations, aware that Russia would deploy its veto power to block meaningful action in the council, used the session to place the brightest possible spotlight on the suffering visited on Ukraine’s population, enduring nearly nonstop Russian attacks and unable to shield the most vulnerable citizens.

For its part, Russia used the meeting to deny its troops had targeted civilians and to try to shift blame for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine onto the United States and its European allies, arguing members of the NATO alliance had armed Ukraine and used it as a pawn in a confrontation with Russia.

“You are fueling this conflict, pouring oil into it,” the Russian ambassador, Vasily Nebenzya, said. He added that the weapons the West was providing Ukraine would end up in the hands of terrorist groups targeting Europe. “Do you know how dangerous it is for your own security?”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, accused Russia of using the “council as a venue for its disinformation and for promoting its propaganda.”

Most of the meeting was focused on drawing attention to the plight of Ukrainian civilians.

Dr. Tedros Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organization, said the war had severely disrupted health services and had cut people off from basic supplies because of widespread destruction of water and sanitation infrastructure. The W.H.O. has verified 43 attacks on health care facilities, during which 12 people were killed and 34 were injured, including health workers.

“The lifesaving medicine we need right now is peace,” he said.

Approximately 35,000 mental health patients in hospitals and other facilities in Ukraine are now facing a worsening shortage of medicine and other basic supplies, according to the W.H.O.’s Ukraine response team.

Of particular concern is a critical shortage of oxygen caused by the closure of eight facilities that produce the gas, which is essential for a range of chronic illnesses and a necessity in most surgeries.

Since only a third of Ukraine’s population is vaccinated against the coronavirus, the risk of a severe outbreak is rising, especially as residents huddle in close quarters to avoid being killed in a Russian attack, W.H.O. officials reported.

The impact of the fighting was having a particularly devastating effect on women and children, said Ms. Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador.

The three million refugees displaced so far “stuffed their lives into backpacks, and left their homes and everything they knew behind,” she told the Security Council. “Today, many of them know that their apartment buildings and streets have been bombed to rubble. And the horrors continue for those who remain in Ukraine.”

Mr. Nebenzya denied reports of his country’s forces targeting and killing civilians. As he has done repeatedly in council meetings since the war began, he called those reports “fakes” and “disinformation,” and claimed they resulted from Ukraine arming civilians to fight the war.

Mr. Nebenzya also denied that the theater in Mariupol that was destroyed by a strike was a civilian shelter where hundreds of people were staying. He alleged that armed Nazi groups in Ukraine were using the building to store weapons and had taken civilians as human shields.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, the Security Council has held multiple emergency meetings, but Russia has blocked legally binding resolutions intended to stop the war.

Russia vetoed one resolution that condemned its invasion of Ukraine and called on it to withdraw its troops. Another resolution, focused on humanitarian aid and calling for an end to hostilities, was withdrawn because Russia again threatened to veto it.

That resolution, put forth by France and Mexico, will go to the full General Assembly next week, where diplomats predict it will pass with a majority. General Assembly resolutions are not legally binding but they carry political weight.

Russia had drafted its own humanitarian resolution and had scheduled a council meeting on Friday for a vote. But American and European members of the council called the Russian document “a mockery” and predicted it would fail with a majority of no votes from the 15-member council.

Russia announced that it was suspending the vote on its resolution and instead called an emergency meeting on Friday morning to discuss its allegations that the United States has been providing funding and support for biological weapons programs in Ukrainian laboratories. The United States and Ukraine have denied that allegation, and the United Nations has said it has no evidence of a weaponized biological program in Ukraine.

Edward Wong

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said on Thursday that the United States would punish China if President Xi Jinping chose to give military aid to Russia for the war in Ukraine, where Russian forces have killed thousands of civilians.

“We’re concerned that they’re considering directly assisting Russia with military equipment to use in Ukraine,” Mr. Blinken said at a news conference in Washington. “President Biden will be speaking to President Xi tomorrow and will make clear that China will bear responsibility for any actions it takes to support Russia’s aggression, and we will not hesitate to impose costs.”

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