BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin urged his allies on Wednesday to “step up” arms deliveries to Ukrainians fighting the Russians in Donbass, as Chinese President Xi Jinping signaled his support for his “old friend” Vladimir Poutine.
“Ukraine is facing a crucial moment on the battlefield,” declared the US defense secretary, during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels of the countries of the “contact group” created by the United States to help Ukraine. “We must therefore intensify our common commitment” and “redouble our efforts so that she can defend herself,” he added.
About 50 defense ministers – including Ukrainian minister Oleksiï Reznikov – were due to attend this meeting on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial meeting. A meeting eagerly awaited by Kyiv, which for weeks has been asking for heavy weapons in quantity to repel Russian forces in the Donbass basin.
“Brussels, we are awaiting a decision,” tweeted Mykhaïlo Podoliak, adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, again on Wednesday morning. “The Russia/Ukraine artillery ratio is around 10 to 1 in some areas, I get daily messages from our fighters saying ‘We are holding up, just let us know when the weapons will arrive,'” he said.
Since their abortive offensive in Kyiv in March, Russian and pro-Russian separatist forces, which have partially controlled this industrial region since 2014, have set themselves the goal of taking full control.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg assured before the meeting that Alliance members would supply more modern heavy weapons to Ukraine, but warned that this “takes time”.
“These are artillery systems, long-range, anti-aircraft systems according to NATO standards, which require training, maintenance and maintenance,” insisted Mr. Stoltenberg.
Among the weapons Ukraine is asking for are several rocket launch systems, which Washington and London have promised to provide. British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said Wednesday from Oslo that deliveries were “imminent”.
Ukrainians are also asking for self-propelled weapons, such as the French Caesar self-propelled weapons. France has delivered six copies to Kyiv in recent weeks, and AFP on Wednesday saw Ukrainian soldiers using Caesars to fire on Russian targets in the Donbass.
“Ukraine must obtain everything necessary to achieve victory,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted in a teleconference with Czech lawmakers.
He reiterated that the invasion of Ukraine was just a first step for Moscow, which aims to retake its former Soviet-era satellites. Russia is “a tyrant who … wants everything, he will never stop,” said the Ukrainian president.
Moscow tries to intercept Western deliveries and regularly announces that it has destroyed NATO-supplied weapons. On Wednesday, the Russian army again claimed to have destroyed the previous day a warehouse of Western weapons, in particular M777 155 mm howitzers, near Lviv in western Ukraine.
“My old friend” Putin
Faced with this Western call to step up military aid to Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday won the support of his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.
“China is willing to seek mutual support with Russia on issues of sovereignty, security, as well as other issues of fundamental interests and major concerns,” Xi told the agency. any specific example such as Ukraine or Taiwan.
The Kremlin indicated, for its part, that the two leaders agreed to “increase cooperation in the energy, financial, industrial, transport and other fields, taking into account the world economic situation that has been complicated due to the illegitimate sanctions of the West”. .
They also discussed the “development of military and military-technical relations”, according to the Russian presidency, describing the exchange as “warm and friendly”.
In the face of Western sanctions, Russian giant Gazprom announced a further one-third drop in its gas deliveries to Europe via the Nord Stream pipeline, a day after an initial drastic reduction.
“This is clearly a strategy to disrupt and raise prices,” Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck said in a statement.
These statements are against the backdrop of the Russian attack on the city of Severodonetsk and its neighbor Lyssytchansk, two key cities in Donbass, and elsewhere in the region, according to Kyiv.
“We have to hold on,” President Zelensky said on Tuesday night as this battle has raged for weeks. “It is vital to stay in the Donbass (…), the defense of the region is essential to give an indication of who will dominate in the coming weeks”, he added in his daily video message.
Ukrainian authorities have admitted in recent days that their troops have been driven out of Severodonetsk city center and only have “complicated channels of communication” with them after the destruction of all bridges to Lysychansk.
Ukrainian forces are notably entrenched at the Azot chemical plant, emblematic of this city of 100,000, with more than 500 civilians inside, according to Severodonetsk Mayor Oleksandre Striouk.
Moscow on Tuesday proposed a “humanitarian corridor” that would allow the evacuation of these civilians to Russian-controlled territories, but Kyiv did not confirm this. A pro-Russian separatist official on Wednesday morning accused Ukrainians of having prevented his establishment.
A situation reminiscent of the massive steelworks at Azovstal, which for weeks was the last pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the strategic port of Mariupol on the southeastern Sea of Azov, with hundreds of civilians taking refuge with them and rare coordinated evacuation operations.
Kyiv has so far denied any siege by its forces in Severodonetsk, largely destroyed and emptied of its inhabitants, while pro-Russian separatist forces said they would have to “surrender or die”.
According to a journalist at the scene, the roads linking Lyssytchansk to Kramatorsk, another important Donbass city under Ukrainian control, are used to transport weapons, in particular Grad multiple rocket launchers and artillery guns.
“The Russians are bombing the city center non-stop,” said a local police officer. “It’s 24 hours a day, ‘non-stop'”, adds the colleague.
Next European Union decision
If Ukraine’s NATO membership possibilities seem more distant than ever, Kyiv awaits the European summit on 23-24 June for the decision of the Twenty-Seven on its application to be accepted as an official candidate for membership of the European bloc – the beginning of a negotiation process that can last for years.
In this context, French President Emmanuel Macron, who holds the rotating EU presidency until June 30, as well as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, are expected in Kyiv on Thursday, according to German media. and the Italians.
Such a visit would be the first since the start of the Russian invasion for the leaders of Europe’s three largest economies.
Without confirming this trip, the French president on Wednesday sent encouraging signals to Kyiv, visiting a NATO base in Romania.
“I think we are at a time when we, the European Union, need to send clear political signals to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in a context where they have been heroically resisting for several months,” Macron said.