As diplomatic hopes fade, US rallies allies to provide long-term military aid to Ukraine

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RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – The United States on Tuesday rallied 40 allies to provide Ukraine with long-term military aid in what could become a protracted battle against the Russian invasion, and Germany said that it would send dozens of anti-aircraft armored vehicles. It was a major policy shift for a country that had been hesitant for fear of provoking Russia.

The announcement from Germany, Europe’s biggest economy and one of Russia’s most important Western trading partners, was among many signals on Tuesday pointing to a further escalation in the war and disappointment for diplomacy.

Germany’s change in weaponry was also seen as a strong affirmation of a hardened message from the Biden administration, which has said it wants to see Russia not only defeated in Ukraine, but seriously weakened by the conflict the president Vladimir Putin started two months ago.

The growing flow of Western weapons into Ukraine – including howitzers, armed drones, tanks and ammunition – was also another sign that a war Putin expected to divide his Western adversaries had brought them closer instead. .

“Putin never imagined the world would rally behind Ukraine so quickly and surely,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told uniformed and civilian officials at the US Ramstein Air Force Base on Tuesday. Germany, where he summoned defense officials from 40 allied nations.

“No one is fooled” by Putin’s “false assertions about Donbass,” Austin said, referring to the eastern region of Ukraine, where Russia has recently refocused its assaults. “The invasion of Russia is indefensible, as are the Russian atrocities,” he said.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Tuesday that the influx of heavy weapons from Western countries was effectively pushing Ukraine to sabotage peace talks with Moscow, which showed no concrete signs of progress. .

“They will pursue this line by filling Ukraine with weapons,” Lavrov said after meeting in Moscow with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who was undertaking his most active diplomatic effort yet to stop the war. “If this continues, the negotiations will not yield any results.”

On Monday, Lavrov raised the specter of nuclear war, as Putin has done at least twice before. Lavrov said that while such a possibility would be “unacceptable” for Russia, the risks had increased because NATO had “engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and armed that proxy.” .

“The risks are quite considerable,” he said in an interview with Channel One, the Russian public television channel.

“I don’t want them to be overdone,” he said. But “the danger is serious, real, it should not be underestimated”.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called Lavrov’s remarks a sign that “Moscow feels defeat in Ukraine.” John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, called them “obviously unnecessary, not constructive.”

“A nuclear war cannot be won and it must not be fought,” he said. “There is no reason for the current conflict in Ukraine to reach this level.”

Austin said defense officials who gathered at Ramstein Air Force Base – from Australia, Belgium, Britain, Italy, Israel and other countries – agreed to train what he called the Ukraine Contact Group and meet monthly to make sure they “strengthen the Ukrainian military for the long haul.”

“We will continue to move heaven and earth” to strengthen the Ukrainian military, Austin said.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht announced at the meeting that Berlin would send Ukraine up to 50 armed vehicles, called Flakpanzer Gepard, designed to shoot down planes but also fire at ground targets.

Although no longer used by Germany, they have been acquired by Jordan, Qatar, Romania and Brazil, where they have been deployed to defend football stadiums against possible drone attacks during international tournaments, according to manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann.

The German government had previously cited a series of reasons for avoiding shipping such heavy weapons to Ukraine, including that none were readily available, that training Ukrainian soldiers to operate them was time-consuming, and that Russia could be provoked into a larger conflict.

But German officials have changed course under mounting pressure from the conservative opposition in Berlin and members of the ruling coalition. Germany has also supplied Ukraine with shoulder-launched anti-tank rockets and surface-to-air defensive missiles, some from former East German stocks.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who traveled with Austin to Ukraine last weekend, said on Tuesday that the United States would support the Ukrainian military in pushing Russian forces out of eastern Ukraine. if that is the goal of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“If that’s how they define their goals as a sovereign, democratic, independent country, that’s what we’ll support,” Blinken said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.

After meeting Putin in the Kremlin, Guterres said he had secured an agreement ‘in principle’ to allow the United Nations and the Red Cross to evacuate civilians from a sprawling steel plant besieged by Russia in the port from Mariupol, in southern Ukraine, where they locked up for days with Ukrainian fighters. But there was no evidence that the meeting had produced breakthroughs in diplomacy to end the war.

Ahead of the meeting, Putin claimed that Guterres had been “deceived” about the situation in Mariupol, and he insisted that Russia had operated functional humanitarian corridors out of the city – a claim denied by Ukrainian officials, who say their attempts to transport civilians from the city collapsed in the face of threats from Russian forces.

Putin told António Guterres he hoped continued peace talks with Ukraine would bring “a positive outcome”, according to the Kremlin. But Putin said Russia would not sign a security guarantee agreement with Ukraine without resolving territorial issues in Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and Donbass, where Russia has recognized two regions separatists as independents.

In an escalation of the East-West economic conflict stemming from the war, Poland’s state-owned gas company said on Tuesday that Russia’s state-owned gas company had announced the “complete suspension” of natural gas deliveries to Poland through a major gas pipeline.

Poland, a NATO member and main conduit of Western arms to Ukraine, gets more than 45% of its natural gas from Russia, and cutting that supply could hurt its ability to heat homes and run businesses. .

As well as spreading suffering and death across Ukraine, the invasion triggered the largest exodus of European refugees since World War II.

According to the UN, more than 5 million people, 90% of them women and children, have already left Ukraine since the Russian invasion on February 24. A further 7.7 million people have been driven from their homes by the conflict, but remain in the country.

On Tuesday, the UN predicted that the number of refugees could reach 8.3 million by the end of the year, and it asked donors for an additional $1.25 billion to fund increased humanitarian needs in Ukraine.

In another ominous sign of the war’s possible spillover, explosions rocked Transnistria, a small Moscow-backed breakaway republic in Ukraine’s southwestern neighbor Moldova, for the second straight day.

It was still unclear who was behind the explosions. Authorities in Transnistria blamed Ukraine, while Ukraine accused Russia of orchestrating the blasts.

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu told reporters that there were “tensions between different forces within the regions, interested in destabilizing the situation”.

At least 12,000 Russian troops are stationed in Transnistria, just 40 km from Ukraine’s main port, Odessa. Western officials have expressed concern that Putin could create a pretext to order more troops into the territory, just as he did before Russian forces entered Crimea and Donbass.

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