LVIV, Ukraine/KYIV (Reuters) – Russia blocked Facebook and some other websites on Friday and passed a law that gave Moscow much stronger powers to crack down on independent journalism, prompting the BBC, Bloomberg and other foreign media to suspend reporting in the country.
Moscow’s attack on Ukraine, the biggest on a European state since World War Two, has created over 1 million refugees, a barrage of sanctions and fears of a global economic hit and wider conflict in the West unthought-of for decades.
Fighting was raging in Ukraine as Russian troops besieged and bombarded cities in the second week of an invasion that has isolated Moscow, which says its attack is a “special operation” to capture individuals it regards as dangerous nationalists.
Kyiv, in the path of a Russian armoured column that has been stalled outside the Ukrainian capital for days, came under renewed assault, with explosions audible from the city centre. Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant had also been seized.
The southeastern port city of Mariupol – a key prize for the Russian forces – has been encircled and shelled. There is no water, heat or electricity and it is running out of food after five days under attack, according to Mayor Vadym Boychenko.
“We are simply being destroyed,” he said.
Putin’s actions have drawn almost universal condemnation and many countries have imposed heavy sanctions as the West balances punishment with avoiding a widening of the conflict.
Fighting back in the information war, Russia’s parliament passed a law imposing a prison term of up to 15 years for spreading intentionally “fake” news about the military.
“This law will force punishment – and very tough punishment – on those who lied and made statements which discredited our armed forces,” the chairman of the Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin said.
Russia is blocking Facebook for restricting state-backed channels and the websites of the BBC, Deutsche Welle and Voice of America.
The BBC, Bloomberg News and other foreign media said they would temporarily suspend the work of their journalists in Russia while they assessed the situation.
A glut of global brands have halted operations or exited completely while shipping and supply chain issues have made it difficult to work in Russia.
French luxury fashion house Chanel said on Friday it is halting all business in Russia while tech giant Microsoft is suspending sales of its products and services.
Samsung Electronics said it was suspending shipments to Russia and donating $6 million to support humanitarian efforts.
‘DANGEROUS NEW ESCALATION’
As the battle between Russia and the West escalates on a number of fronts, the United States has warned the conflict in Ukraine is a threat to the rules-based order.
But at a meeting on Friday, NATO allies rejected Ukraine’s appeal for no-fly zones, saying they were increasing support but that stepping in directly could make the situation worse.
“We have a responsibility… to prevent this war from escalating beyond Ukraine because that would be even more dangerous, more devastating and would cause even more human suffering,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy slammed the summit as “weak” and “confused.” “It was clear that not everyone considers the battle for Europe’s freedom to be the number one goal,” he said.
He will participate in a Zoom call with the U.S. Senate on Saturday.
A humanitarian disaster is also unfolding, with more than one million people seeking refuge in western Ukraine and in neighbouring countries.
An attack on the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, about 140 miles (225 km) west of Mariupol, brought the conflict to a perilous moment.
As shells hit the area, a training building caught fire – triggering a spasm of alarm around the world before the blaze was extinguished and officials said the facility was safe.
The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said the world had narrowly averted a nuclear catastrophe.
The attack reflected a “dangerous new escalation” in Russia’s invasion, she said during an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting, warning that “imminent danger” persisted and demanding assurances from Moscow that such an assault will not happen again.
An official at Energoatom, the Ukrainian state nuclear plant operator, told Reuters fighting had ceased and radiation levels were normal. But his organisation no longer had contact with the plant’s managers or control over its nuclear material, he said.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Raphael Grossi said the plant was undamaged from what he believed was a Russian projectile. Only one of its six reactors was working, at around 60% of capacity.
Russia’s defence ministry also said the plant was working normally. It blamed the fire on an attack by Ukrainian saboteurs and said its forces were in control.
The plant and adjacent territory were now being guarded by Russian troops, Moscow’s envoy to the United Nations said.
Moscow denies targeting civilians in Ukraine and says its aim is to disarm its neighbour, counter what it views as NATO aggression and capture leaders it calls neo-Nazis.
Ukraine and its Western allies call that a baseless pretext for a war to conquer a country of 44 million people.
More EU sanctions were coming, potentially including a ban on Russian-flagged ships in European ports and blocking imports of steel, timber, aluminium or coal, said Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.
The United States is weighing cuts to imports of Russian oil and ways to minimize the impact on global supplies and consumers as lawmakers fast-track a bill that would ban Russian energy imports entirely.
In Kyiv’s Borshchahivka neighbourhood, the twisted engine of a cruise missile lay in the street where it had apparently been downed overnight by Ukrainian air defences.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said an advance had been halted on the southern port of Mykolayiv. If captured, the city of 500,000 people would be the biggest yet to fall.
Russian forces have made their biggest advances in the south, where they captured their first sizeable Ukrainian city, Kherson, this week. Bombing has worsened in recent days in the northeast cities of Kharkiv and Chernihiv.
Ukrainians have been fleeing west, many crowding into Lviv near the Polish border.
James Elder of the United Nations children’s agency said doctors in Lviv were preparing a system to identify children in case of mass casualties.
“A green dot means fine over here, a yellow dot means critical support. They are learning a black dot means the child won’t make it,” he said.
(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Aleksandar Vasovic in Ukraine, John Irish in Paris, Francois Murphy in Vienna, David Ljunggren in Ottawa and other Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Angus MacSwan and Costas Pitas; Editing by Frances Kerry, Jon Boyle, Toby Chopra and Daniel Wallis)