Joe Biden said Vladimir Putin’s “back is against the wall” in Ukraine as he stepped up warnings the Russian president may resort to increasingly desperate war tactics, including more indiscriminate bombing and use of chemical weapons.
The US president’s warning came as Russia neared the end of its first month of fighting in Ukraine without any major population centres under control, its offensive on Kyiv largely stalled, and the devastated port city of Mariupol still holding out against a relentless siege.
Biden said Ukraine was “wreaking havoc” against Russian forces and delivered his strongest warning yet that Russia was setting up “false flags” to justify the use of unconventional weapons in Ukraine.
“They are also suggesting that Ukraine has biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. That’s a clear sign [Putin is] considering using both of those,” he said.
Warning that Putin was turning to unconventional forms of warfare, Biden also urged America’s business leaders to prepare for cyber attacks. “The magnitude of Russian cyber capacity is fairly consequential, and it’s coming,” he said.
Biden is preparing to travel to Europe this week for a series of summits with allies, which will discuss further measures to support Ukraine and squeeze Russia’s economy with sanctions.
With talks continuing with Moscow to end the war, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said that any potential “historic” agreements would have to be put to a referendum, underlining the challenges to finding any lasting settlement.
Negotiators are exploring forms of “neutrality” for Ukraine, which could include sensitive steps to renounce its constitutionally enshrined Nato ambitions in return for alternative security guarantees. Any deal would also need to address Moscow’s calls for Ukraine to recognise Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the independence of two separatist-held territories in the eastern Donbas region.
“I explained to all negotiating groups: when you talk about all these changes — and they could be historic — we will eventually come to a referendum,” Zelensky said in an interview on Monday night with a consortium of European media outlets. “Our people will have to say and give an answer to certain formats of compromises.”
Ukraine’s military on Tuesday said Russia had launched more air sorties over the past day, while US officials noted increased naval activity around the Black Sea port of Odesa, which has been almost unscathed so far in the invasion.
The Pentagon estimates Russia has launched more than 1,100 missiles since the invasion began, devastating large swaths of Ukraine’s urban infrastructure. Attacks on Monday included the concerted shelling of a shopping mall on the outskirts of Kyiv.
But on most fronts Russia’s forces have made no significant territorial advances, with a UK intelligence update suggesting Putin’s military “endured yet another day of limited progress with most forces largely stalled in place”.
Ukraine’s military claimed Russia’s stockpiles of food and ammunition were running so low in places they would last for “no more than three days”. The claim could not be independently verified.
With communications down, little up to date information has emerged from Mariupol, a strategically important port on the Sea of Azov that has been under siege for several weeks. More than 200,000 civilians are cut off from water, electricity and heating and struggling to find food. Ukraine rejected a Russian ultimatum to surrender the city on Monday and Ukrainian officials said evacuations of civilians continued early on Tuesday.
The Pentagon said Russia’s reliance on destructive long-range firepower, artillery and missile strikes reflected frustration at how its land campaign had stalled. “They are looking for a chance to gain some momentum, not even regain momentum because they never really had it,” a senior US defence official said.
“That’s what’s so frustrating for them. When you look at the map, you can count literally on one hand the number of population centres that we assess are in Russian control right now.”
Zelensky also reiterated his calls for a meeting with Putin, saying without such a meeting it would be “impossible to fully understand what they are ready for in order to stop the war”.
Moscow has played down progress in talks, mediated by Turkey and Israel, in recent days, blaming Ukrainian demands. Senior western diplomats in Ukraine briefed on the talks said there was “a total lack of trust” between parties. Russian officials have said any meeting between Zelensky and Putin would only be called once specific proposals are ready to be discussed.
Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelensky, told BBC Ukraine early on Tuesday that “any fundamental decisions can be made only at the meeting of the presidents”.
“When the working groups in the negotiation process work out some preliminary documents and hand them over to the presidents, they will assess whether this is a ‘road map’ that can be discussed in person. Then this meeting can happen,” he said.