Russian Military Evacuate Air Base Around Kyiv, Zelensky Advises Caution

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky counseled caution on Friday, despite encouraging signals that his forces reclaimed territory from Russian soldiers in several places. 

Russian forces seemed to withdraw from the settlements of Hotomel and Chernobyl, a Kyiv-area airbase. 

Back and Forth

Since the conflict started six weeks ago, the airbase has been the scene of some of the bloodiest fighting. It is a critical strategic location for Russia’s troops to launch an attack on the capital city. 

Since the occupation began on Feb. 24, the region has changed hands many times. 

Russia also vacated Chernobyl, Ukraine’s decommissioned nuclear power plant, five weeks after taking it.

The International Atomic Energy Agency plans to hold a media briefing Friday afternoon in response to concerns of radiation illness among certain soldiers. Chernobyl is home to the world’s worst nuclear accident. 

Additionally, the agency stated it would deploy experts and security equipment to Ukraine to assure Chernobyl’s safety. 

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby appeared suspicious of allegations that soldiers contracted radiation sickness.

Kirby argued during a media briefing that Russia’s troop deployment had little to do with health risks and appeared to be “part of this wider effort to rebuild and replenish” Russia’s military. 

Two Ukrainian low-flying assault helicopters crossed into Russian territory early Friday. They fired on an oil store in the border city of Belgorod, Moscow’s first report of a Ukrainian bombing on its territory since the conflict began. 

Russia appeared to be embarrassed by the strike after claiming last week to have knocked out Ukraine’s air force. Belgorod is located approximately 20 miles away from the Ukrainian border, with a population of approximately 400,000.

Video footage uploaded to VKontakte and examined by US news organizations confirmed the airstrike was responsible for the fire at the facility. Two people sustained injuries. 

Humanitarian efforts began Friday morning in the besieged port city of Mariupol, with convoys dispatched to evacuate stuck residents who have been subjected to near-constant bombardments for weeks. 

Suspensions and Deadlines

Russia’s defense service agreed Thursday to a brief suspension of hostilities to establish a humanitarian corridor for evacuations and assistance.

Mariupol’s communication was primarily cut off. However, the city’s committee was able to distribute a video of a convoy and claimed “almost 2,000 individuals will be evacuated by bus alone!” 

However, the International Committee of the Red Cross warned the evacuation effort “remains highly challenging.” 

As the prospect of humanitarian assistance grew in Mariupol, word spread that hundreds of Syrian militants were en route to assist Russia’s military.

The move is widely interpreted as retaliation for Russia’s assistance in smashing insurgents during Syria’s 11-year civil war. 

According to the New York Times, President Bashar Assad already dispatched 300 soldiers from a Syrian army division that previously collaborated closely with Russian forces.

Syria has developed a reputation as a mercenary exporter, sending hired fighters to Libya, Azerbaijan, and the Central African Republic. 

Elsewhere, Chinese and European Union leaders will meet for the first time in two years on Friday. The EU is likely to seek assurances from China that it will not assist Russia militarily or assist Moscow in evading sanctions. 

Besides that, Europe has until Friday to pay for natural gas in rubles or risk having supplies cut off. This would make gas prices skyrocket and put the region’s economic health at risk.