US-based Christian group sends emergency supplies to Ukrainian churches as civilian death toll rises

A woman walks in front of Russian armored vehicles parked at a railway station in the southern Russian Rostov region on February 25, 2022. | STRINGER/AFP via Getty Images

President Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia's nuclear deterrent forces to be on high alert in response to financial sanctions imposed on Russian banks by European nations following his invasion of Ukraine.

In a meeting with his top officials on Sunday, Putin ordered his defense minister and the chief of the military's general staff to put the nuclear deterrent forces in a "special regime of combat duty" in response to what he claimed were "aggressive statements" by NATO members and financial sanctions that block some Russian banks from the Swift global payments system, according to The Telegraph

This comes as Ukrainian forces continued to fiercely resist invading Russian troops on the fourth day of fighting.

Ukraine’s health minister announced Saturday that at least 198 civilians, including three children, had been killed by Russian soldiers. Among the hundreds of civilian casualties were a 6-year-old boy and a 7-year-old girl. 

The “real figures are considerably higher” as officials assessing the situation have yet to confirm other reports, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, according to Axios.

As the war rages, a U.S.-based Christian group is leading efforts to support churches in Ukraine, some of which are housing displaced women and children who sought shelter after the shelling began. 

“We have a very urgent situation, I beg you to understand, we are again sitting in the basement with children under the howl of sirens. I don’t know how it will be tomorrow, we got groceries and we are distributing them,” the U.S.-based group Slavic Gospel Association quoted an allied pastor in Ukraine as saying on Twitter late Saturday.

“While others are fleeing, local churches are engaging,” said Eric Mock, SGA’s vice president of ministry operations, in a statement about the ministry’s support for the church-driven emergency response in Ukraine “to provide food, winter clothes, blankets and medicines for thousands of at-risk people, including orphans, abandoned children with special needs, the elderly, those uprooted by the conflict, and marginalized ethnic groups.”

Churches in Ukraine, Mock added, are “bravely rushing to help those in need right now. They’re unstoppable in the face of this crisis.”

On Saturday, at least six people, including a 7-year-old girl, were killed in the shelling of Okhtyrka in the northeastern administrative division of Sumy Oblast, Governor Dmitry Zhivitsky said, according to Kyiv Independent.

A woman was killed by Russian artillery in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, and a 6-year-old boy was killed by gunfire in Kyiv, the local media outlet added.

A view of a residential building damaged by recent shelling in Kharkiv on February 26, 2022. - Russia on February 26 ordered its troops to advance in Ukraine "from all directions" as the Ukrainian capital Kyiv imposed a blanket curfew and officials reported 198 civilian deaths. | SERGEY BOBOK/AFP via Getty Images

Illinois-based SGA said it was prepared to provide 175,000 meals through its partnering with a network of more than 2,300 Ukrainian and Russian pastors, including more than 40 churches in eastern Ukraine where the fighting is most intense. “The need is only growing.”

More than 120,000 people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the largest ground war in Europe since World War II.

Experts have warned that a prolonged war could displace millions of Ukrainians, leading to large-scale humanitarian crisis.

A nine-story residential building in the eastern city of Kharkiv was also hit by “enemy artillery” Saturday night, killing one woman. The building was extensively damaged and about 80 people were rescued, as most of them had been sheltering in the basement, according to Ukraine’s State Emergency Service.

International Christian relief groups Samaritan's Purse and World Help are also standing alongside the Ukrainian Church to provide aid to victims.

A senior U.S. defense official said Russia has at least 50% of its estimated 150,000-strong force inside Ukraine, according to U.S. estimates, Military Times reported.

However, reports indicate that Ukrainian forces are putting up strong resistance to Russian troops.

Ukraine’s U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya tweeted Saturday that he had appealed to the International Committee of the Red Cross “to facilitate repatriation of thousands of bodies of Russian soldiers” killed during its invasion of Ukraine, with an accompanying chart claiming 3,500 Russian troops had been killed, The Associated Press reported.

“Russia is clearly facing setbacks that it did not expect. It’s taking casualties and Ukraine is taking prisoners, including some quite senior, at least one, possibly two, brigade commanders,” Al Jazeera quoted Nigel Gould-Davies from the International Institute for Strategic Studies as saying.

“It’s quite clear that Russia has a very significant advantage. But the really impressive aspect of Ukraine’s resistance so far is how strong and how wide it has been,” Gould-Davis, a former U.K. ambassador to Belarus, told the Qatari-government run news agency.

Ukraine has said it will be closing its borders with Russia and Belarus beginning Monday.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Western allies are preparing more sanctions against Russia, including blocking its key banks from the main global payments system.

“We are resolved to continue imposing costs on Russia that will further isolate Russia from the international financial system and our economies,” said a joint statement from the U.S., France, Germany, Canada, Italy, Britain and the European Commission. “We will implement these measures within the coming days.”

Estonia, Romania, Lithuania and Latvia announced Saturday they were banning Russian airlines from their airspace.

The German government has gone a step further to announce Saturday it would send weapons and other supplies directly to Ukraine, The AP reported, saying Germany is moving away from its long-held policy of not exporting deadly weapons to conflict zones.

Germany’s chancellery will send 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 “Stinger” surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine “as quickly as possible.”

“The Russian invasion of Ukraine marks a turning point. It threatens our entire post-war order,” German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a statement. “In this situation, it is our duty to help Ukraine, to the best of our ability, to defend itself against Vladimir Putin’s invading army.”

In Russia, street protests against Putin resumed in Moscow and St. Petersburg among other cities with people taking to the streets despite mass detentions on Thursday and Friday.

OVD-Info, a rights group that tracks political arrests, reported Saturday that at least 460 protesters had been detained in 34 cities, including over 200 in Moscow.

Russia said Sunday that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett offered to mediate to end the fighting in Ukraine.

The Kremlin said Bennett spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone telling him that Israel was ready to help, the AP reported, adding that it was not known whether the Russian leader had accepted the offer.

President Joe Biden on Friday night signed an order to provide up to $600 million to Ukraine — up to $350 million in military aid, and $250 million for “overall assistance.”

Earlier on Friday, Russia, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, used its veto power to block a resolution condemning its invasion. The vote at the U.N.’s headquarters in New York City was 11 in favor, one against, and three abstentions, including China and India.

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