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Russia summons US ambassador, warns ties on verge of collapse

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov (file photo)

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has summoned US Ambassador John Sullivan, warning that Moscow-Washington relations are on the verge of entire collapse as the Russian military operation in Ukraine enters its 26th day.

Tensions between the United States and Russia escalated after US President Joe Biden recently labeled President Vladimir Putin of Russia a “war criminal,” marking the first time a US official used the term to characterize Putin since February 24.

“Such statements from the American president, unworthy of a statesman of such high rank, put Russian-American relations on the verge of rupture,” the ministry said in a Monday statement. It also told the American envoy that hostile actions against Russia would meet with a “decisive and firm response.”

On March 16, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denounced Biden’s comment as “unacceptable and unforgivable.”

“We believe such rhetoric to be unacceptable and unforgivable on the part of the head of a state whose bombs have killed hundreds of thousands of people around the world,” Peskov said.

The United States and its allies have been piling sanctions on Russia since that February day, when Putin announced a “special military operation” aimed at “demilitarization” of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions in eastern Ukraine. He said the mission was aimed at “defending people who for eight years are suffering persecution and genocide by the Kiev regime.”

In 2014, the two regions declared themselves new republics, collectively known as Donbass, refusing to recognize Ukraine’s Western-backed government.

Russia says it will halt the operation instantly if Kiev meets Moscow’s list of demands. Moscow has specified some of them as protection of its interests and nationals in Ukraine and prevention of the country’s joining NATO.

Russian court labels Meta ‘extremist organization’, allows WhatsApp to stay

Meanwhile on Monday, a Russian court declared Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, an “extremist organization” and made its operations in the country illegal. The court, however, said the decision would not apply to its WhatsApp messenger service. “The decision does not apply to the activities of Meta's messenger WhatsApp, due to its lack of functionality for the public dissemination of information.”

Meta did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Earlier, Meta’s lawyer Victoria Shagina rejected claims of “extremist” activities, the Interfax news agency reported.

Russia banned Meta for restricting access to Russian media. Instagram was also blocked after Meta said it would allow social media users in Ukraine to post messages urging violence against President Putin and Russian troops in Ukraine.

Nearly 3.5 million refugees flee Ukraine: UN

The United Nations said on Monday that nearly 3.5 million Ukrainians have now fled the country since the beginning of the Russian operation, hailing neighboring countries for showing overwhelming compassion towards their “extreme plight.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), well over 3,480,000 Ukrainians had fled the country since February 24.

More than 10 million people – over a quarter of the population in the regions under government control – are now thought to have fled their homes, including the millions of internally displaced people, the UN agency said.

“Over the last four weeks, the world has watched in disbelief. Countless lives have been lost while millions of others have been completely upended,” UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi said. “As if to counter the despair, we have also witnessed overwhelming acts of welcome and compassion as neighboring countries, particularly local responders, have opened their hearts and homes to Ukrainians.”

“Millions around the world were rightly moved by the extreme plight of the Ukrainian people,” Grandi said, citing their “pain and sorrow... loss and anguish” and “relief at finding safety and trepidation of an uncertain future.”

Women and children account for some 90 percent of those who have fled. Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are eligible for military call-up and cannot leave.

UNICEF, the UN Children's Fund, has said more than 1.5 million Ukrainian children are among those who have fled abroad.

And according to the UN’s International Organization for Migration (IOM), 186,000 people from third countries had fled Ukraine to neighboring states. “Millions more may be affected if the war does not end.”

Delegations from Russia and Ukraine reached an agreement on Monday to create eight humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from the besieged towns and cities. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said the city of Mariupol was not among them. Moscow has set a deadline for Kiev to surrender the strategic port city. It has also promised safe passage to Ukrainian nationalists in the besieged city on the condition that they lay down arms. Kiev has rejected Russia’s demands. It says giving up the city is out of the question.

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