CNN  — 

Pressure is growing on the Biden administration and its European allies to justify whether they are doing enough to stop the atrocities that are being inflicted on the Ukrainian people as horrific new images emerged Wednesday from the alleged Russian bombing of a maternity and children’s hospital in Mariupol.

The photographs of pregnant women emerging from the bomb-ravaged hospital in blood-stained clothing were the kinds of images certain to stir the consciences of people around the world watching their own leaders try to respond to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s widening campaign, which is increasingly resulting in civilian casualties.

Footage of Mariupol’s hospital rooms, with their rosebud pink changing tables littered with glass and debris from blown-out windows, underscored the senseless brutality of the invasion. At least 17 people were injured, according to preliminary information from police in the Donetsk region, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who called the bombing “proof of a genocide,” said that authorities are continuing to sift through the rubble looking for victims.

The incident created a striking split screen Wednesday with the defensive posturing of US officials, who sought to highlight all the measures they have taken to try to slow the Russian assault while drawing a new red line by announcing that they could not assist Poland with its offer to transfer Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine. The prospect of potentially moving the jets to Ukraine via a US Air Force base in Germany, they argued, carried too great a risk of escalating the conflict.

But the clinical parsing of risk assessments from briefing room podiums has often not carried the same emotional weight as Zelensky’s raw appeals for greater assistance to protect the vulnerable civilians of his country. The attack on the hospital site in the encircled city of Mariupol came despite Russia’s agreement to a 12-hour pause in hostilities that was intended to help refugees evacuate certain towns and cities across Ukraine. And it led Zelensky to issue another searing plea for a no-fly zone, which NATO allies have so far refused because of fears that it will lead them into a direct confrontation with Russia.

“People, children are under the wreckage. Atrocity!” Zelensky said on his Telegram account after the attack Wednesday, as he questioned whether allies were “losing” their humanity. “How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror?”

“We have to encourage some Western leaders so they can finally do what they were supposed to on the first day of invasion,” he said in a subsequent video message posted on Telegram. “Either close the Ukrainian sky for Russian rockets and bombs or give us military planes so we can handle everything ourselves.” A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson accused Ukraine of having established combat positions at the hospital, a claim CNN has not been able to verify.

‘Who are we as a country?’

What the democratic nations of the world are willing to do in the face of mounting Ukrainian casualties and millions of refugees fleeing the country is the most unnerving question now facing the US and its allies.

In a series of briefings Wednesday, US officials including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, White House press secretary Jen Psaki and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby all insisted that the US and allies are doing everything in their power to assist Ukrainians in their defenses – without taking provocative actions that would risk a wider war with Russia.

But there have been some emerging cracks in the unified front that the US is trying to present. Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley of Illinois, the co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, forcefully questioned why allies remain so fixated on the fact that Ukraine is not a member of NATO, arguing that “the Ukrainian fight and the Ukrainian spirit are the very reasons embodied in why we formed NATO in the first place.”

“We can quibble over whether it really matters if someone takes off from Poland or Germany, but, at some point in time, we got to ask ourselves: Who are we as a country? Why did we form NATO? And are we going to allow this to happen?” Quigley told Kate Bolduan on CNN’s “At This Hour” on Wednesday. “If anyone imagines that this is going to get better anytime soon – this is going to be protracted hell on Earth.”

The growing pressure on the US and its NATO allies to do more was highlighted by the US rejection of Poland’s plan to get the fighter jets into Ukraine that Zelensky has requested. US officials were caught off guard by Poland’s announcement on Tuesday that it was ready to transfer the jets via Ramstein Air Base, a development that exposed a potential divide among NATO allies just as Vice President Kamala Harris was preparing to travel to Poland.

Kirby explained that the intelligence community believes that the US taking on an intermediary role could be viewed by Putin as an “escalatory step.” He underscored that the US believes the best way to support Ukraine is by providing the weapons and systems “they need most to defeat Russian aggression” and noted that the Ukrainian air force still has “several squadrons of fully mission-capable aircraft.”

“We need to be careful about every decision we make, that we aren’t making the potential for escalation worse,” Kirby told reporters during Wednesday’s Pentagon briefing. He added that further escalation could complicate the lives of the Ukrainian people, since there is the potential for “a destructive and terrible war” to get “even more destructive and terrible given the fact that Mr. Putin has other capabilities at his disposal.”

‘Our goal is to end the war, not to expand it’

Blinken, who had endorsed the idea of providing Soviet-era jets to Ukraine earlier this week, expressed similar sentiments earlier in the day during a joint news conference with British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss, where Truss said the UK plans to help Ukraine protect the skies by sending “anti-air weaponry.”

When Blinken and Truss were pressed on how they would answer Zelensky’s persistent calls for a no-fly zone, Blinken stressed that “both of our countries, and so many others, have done extraordinary things to make sure that the Ukrainians have in their hands the means to effectively defend themselves against this war of choice from Russia.”

To prevent more “ceaseless, senseless bloodshed,” Blinken said, “our goal is to end the war, not to expand it.”

He acknowledged that despite the “possible off-ramps” that the US and allies have offered to Putin, his response has been to “press the accelerator and continue down this horrific road.” But Blinken said he was confident the “devastating sanctions” and pressures that the US and its allies have placed on Russia, in concert with the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people, would lead to “a strategic defeat” of Putin regardless of any short-term tactical gains.

“Economically, the measures that we’ve taken have erased 30 years of progress integrating Russia into the world,” Blinken added. “This dramatic exodus of virtually every international company from Russia continues as we speak – and that is having a profound impact not just today, but over the long term. So I think what we’re looking at is whether or not President Putin will decide to try to finally cut the losses that he’s inflicted on himself and inflicted on the Russian people. We can’t decide that for him. All that we can do is to continue this extraordinary effort to increase the pressure on him.”

The White House warned Wednesday that Russia could use chemical weapons in Ukraine. Psaki, slamming what she called false claims from Russia that the US is developing chemical weapons in Ukraine, warned on Twitter that “we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them.”

As the debate continues over whether the pressures are enough to stop Putin, the Pentagon is deploying thousands of additional troops to Europe, while sending defensive weapons like Patriot missiles to Poland to counter any potential threat to US and NATO allies.

The US and other NATO members have so far provided Ukraine 17,000 anti-tank missiles and 2,000 Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, according to a senior US official.

And the US House on Wednesday night passed a massive government funding bill that includes $13.6 billion in desperately needed aid for Ukraine. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who had a 45-minute call with Zelensky on Wednesday, said they had spoken about the attack on the maternity hospital as well as his request for fighter jets that Ukrainian pilots could fly themselves.

But she too rejected his call for a no-fly zone: “They know that we can’t go there. Putin is trying to bait the trap so that we go in, and that’s the beginning, could be the beginning, of World War III.”