(Brussels) US President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced $1 billion in additional military aid to Ukraine, with Washington also urging its allies to “step up” arms supplies to Kyiv, which is grappling with the Russians in Donbass .
Updated yesterday at 5:17pm.
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The United States simultaneously declared itself “concerned about China’s rapprochement with Russia” and urged Beijing to stop supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine in order not to “put itself on the wrong side of history”.
The warning follows a phone conversation between Chinese and Russian leaders in which Chinese President Xi Jinping expressed his support for his “old friend” Vladimir Putin.
The new US military aid was announced by US President Joe Biden during a telephone interview with his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The Pentagon indicated that it contained, in particular, 18 howitzers with their transport vehicles and 36,000 shells, as well as two Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers intended for Ukraine’s Black Sea coastal defense.
“I would like to thank you for this support, it is particularly important for our defense in Donbass,” President Zelenskyy reacted very quickly in a video message in the evening.
“Ukraine is facing a pivotal moment on the battlefield,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said earlier in the day during a meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, a country in the “contact group” created by the United States to help Ukraine.
“We must therefore intensify our joint engagement” and “redouble our efforts so that it can defend itself,” he added.
Almost 50 defense ministers – including Ukrainian minister Oleksiï Reznikov – attended this meeting on the sidelines of a NATO ministerial meeting. A meeting eagerly awaited by Kyiv, which has been demanding heavy weaponry in bulk for weeks to repel Russian forces in the Donbass Basin.
After that meeting, US Chief of Staff General Mark Milley assured that in some cases Ukraine had received more tanks and artillery pieces than requested.
And the first 10 long-range artillery systems would be “on the front lines” in the coming weeks after the first Ukrainian troops were trained for their deployment, he said.
“If they use these weapons properly […]they should be able to hit a significant number of targets and that will make a difference,” added General Milley.
Since their aborted offensive on Kyiv in March, Russian and pro-Russian separatists, who have partially controlled this industrial region since 2014, have aimed to take full control.
“Ukraine must be given everything it needs to achieve victory,” President Zelensky stressed in a conference call with Czech MPs. He reiterated that the invasion of Ukraine was just a first step for Moscow, which intends to recapture its former Soviet-era satellites.
“The Wrong Side of History”
Faced with this Western call to step up military aid to Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin received a sign of support from his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Wednesday.
“China is ready to seek mutual assistance with Russia on issues of sovereignty, security and other issues of fundamental interests and major concerns,” Xi was quoted as saying by the New China Press agency, which did not link these statements to any specific example such as Ukraine or Taiwan.
For its part, the Kremlin noted that the two leaders had agreed to “expand cooperation in energy, finance, industry, transport and other areas, taking into account the world economic situation, which has been complicated by the sanctions.”
They also discussed the “development of military and military-technical relations,” according to the Russian Presidency, which described the exchange as “warm and friendly.”
This exchange of pleasantries was very little appreciated by Washington. “More than three months after Russia’s brutal invasion, China still stands by Russia,” a US diplomatic spokesman said.
“She continues to protect Russia in international organizations and shirk her responsibilities as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. And she still denies the existence of the atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine and, on the contrary, suggests that they were staged,” this official estimated.
“Countries that side with Vladimir Putin will inevitably side with history,” he added. He again warned China against any “military aid” to Russia or “systematic support to circumvent sanctions” from the West.
This American warning comes as Russian giant Gazprom announced a further cut in gas supplies to Europe via the Nord Stream gas pipeline by a third in the face of Western sanctions, the day after an initial drastic cut.
“This is clearly a strategy to disrupt and push up prices,” German Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck fired back.
Bomb attacks without end
On the military front, according to Kyiv, the Russians continue to attack the city of Sievierodonetsk and its neighbor Lysytchansk, two key cities in the Donbass, and other locations in the region.
The Ukrainian authorities have admitted in recent days that their troops have been driven out of the center of Sievierodonetsk, leaving only “complicated lines of communication” with them after all bridges to Lysytchansk were destroyed.
According to the mayor of Sievierodonetsk, Oleksandre Striouk, the Ukrainian forces entrenched themselves in particular in the Azot chemical plant, which before the war was a landmark of this city of about 100,000 inhabitants and which housed more than 500 civilians.
Moscow on Tuesday proposed a “humanitarian corridor” that would allow these civilians to be evacuated to Russian-controlled areas, but Kyiv did not confirm this.
But Russia on Wednesday accused Kiev forces of preventing the operation.
The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that Ukrainian forces had “repeatedly violated the ceasefire” and “used the humanitarian lull to move to more advantageous (combat) positions.” It has not been possible to independently verify these claims.
According to an AFP journalist on the ground, the roads connecting Lysytchansk with Kramatorsk, another key Donbass city under Ukrainian control, are used to transport weapons, particularly Grad multiple rocket launchers and artillery pieces.
“The Russians are constantly bombing the city center,” a local police officer told AFP. “That’s 24 hours a day, ‘non-stop’,” adds his colleague.
Even if Ukraine’s prospects of joining NATO seem farther away than ever, Kyiv expects at the European summit on 23-24. June saw the decision of the Twenty-Seven on their application to be accepted as an official candidate for membership of the European bloc – earlier in the year a negotiation process that could take years.
In this context, according to the German media, French President Emmanuel Macron, who will hold the EU Council Presidency until June 30, as well as Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi are expected in Kyiv on Thursday.
Such a visit would be a first for the leaders of Europe’s three largest economies since the start of the Russian invasion.
Without confirming this trip, the French President on Wednesday sent signals to Kyiv and visited a NATO base in Romania.
“I think we are at a time when we, the European Union, need to send clear political signals regarding Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in a context where they have been heroically resisting for several months,” Herr said Macron.