By SUSIE BLANN (Associated Press)
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine and its Western allies are engaged in “fast-track” talks on the possibility of equipping the invaded country with long-range missiles and military aircraft, a top Ukrainian presidential aide said Saturday.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Ukraine’s supporters in the West “understand how the war is developing” and the need to supply planes capable of providing cover for the armored fighting vehicles that the United States and Germany pledged at the beginning of the month.
However, in remarks to online video channel Freedom, Podolyak said that some of Ukraine’s Western partners maintain a “conservative” attitude to arms deliveries, “due to fear of changes in the international architecture.” Russia and North Korea have accused the West of prolonging and taking a direct role in the war by sending Kyiv increasingly sophisticated weapons.
“We need to work with this. We must show (our partners) the real picture of this war,” Podolyak said, without naming specific countries. “We must speak reasonably and tell them, for example, ‘This and this will reduce fatalities, this will reduce the burden on infrastructure. This will reduce security threats to the European continent, this will keep the war localized.’ And we are doing it.”
The U.S. and Germany agreed Wednesday to share advanced tanks with Ukraine along with the Bradley and Marder vehicles promised earlier, a decision that led to criticism not only from the Kremlin but from the prime minister of NATO and European Union member Hungary.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban asserted Friday that Western countries providing weapons and money to assist Ukraine in its war with Russia have “drifted” into becoming active participants in the conflict. Orban has refused to send weapons to neighboring Ukraine and sought to block EU funds earmarked for military aid.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said it would summon Hungary’s ambassador to complain about Orban’s remarks. A ministry spokesperson, Oleg Nikolenko, said Orban told reporters that Ukraine was “a no-man’s land” and compared it to Afghanistan.
“Such statements are completely unacceptable. Budapest continues on its course to deliberately destroy Ukrainian-Hungarian relations,” Nikolenko said in a Facebook post.
President Joe Biden’s announcement that the U.S. would send 31 M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine reversed months of arguments by Washington that they were too difficult for Ukrainian troops to operate and maintain.
The U.S. decision persuaded German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had expressed concern about a unilateral action drawing Russia’s wrath, to agree to send 14 Leopard 2 tanks from Germany’s stocks and to allow European countries with tanks to send some of theirs.
Western weapons have proven essential to Ukraine’s defense while stoking ever-higher tensions with Moscow. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Saturday that Ukrainian forces used U.S.-made HIMARS rockets to strike a hospital in the eastern Ukrainian town of Novoaidar, killing 14 people.
Novoaidar is located in Luhansk province, which is almost entirely under the control of Russian forces or Russian-backed separatists. The Russian Defense Ministry alleged the hospital was deliberately targeted. Its claim of a strike in Novoaidar could not be immediately verified.
Amid the news of the Western pledges of heavy tanks, Russia bombarded Ukraine with missiles, exploding drones and artillery shells this week. The attacks continued Saturday, when Russian missiles struck the city of Kostyantynivka in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk province.
The missiles fell in a residential area, killing three civilians, wounding 14 and damaging four high-rise apartment buildings, a hotel and garages, Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
“Kostyantynivka is a city relatively far from the front line, but still, it constantly suffers from enemy attacks. Everyone who remains in the city exposes themselves to mortal danger,” Kyrylenko said. “The Russians target civilians because they are not able to fight the Ukrainian army.”
In a separate Telegram post earlier Saturday, Kyrylenko reported that Russian attacks in the province killed four civilians in all and wounded seven others in 24 hours.
Russian rockets hit a residential area the Donestsk town of Chasiv Yar on Friday night, killing of two people and wounding five more, the governor said. Photos attached to Kyrylenko’s post showed a three-story school building on fire.
Donetsk province, where the territory is roughly split between Russian and Ukrainian control, has become the battle epicenter of the war as Moscow tries to jump-start a monthslong, grinding offensive to capture the city of Bakhmut.
Chasiv Yar lies on a hill strategically located for the defense of Bakhmut, and has come under intensified Russian shelling. Capturing Bakhmut would allow Russian troops to disrupt Ukrainian supply lines and potentially pave the way for them to threaten Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, the largest remaining Ukrainian-held cities in the country’s east.
Russian forces continued ground attacks around Bakhmut and Avdiivka, another Donetsk city to the south, while Ukrainian troops were on the offensive in southern and northeast Ukraine, the Ukrainian military said in a Saturday morning update.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said that Russian troops “are defending themselves” near Lyman in Luhansk and Kharkiv provinces north of Donetsk, as well in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia provinces in the south.
The fighting has largely been deadlocked over the past months, with winter conditions slowing down ground operations and neither side reporting significant progress.
In the same update, the military reported that Russian forces launched 10 missile strikes, 26 air strikes and 81 shelling attacks on Ukrainian territory between Friday and Saturday mornings. The shelling killed two civilians in Kherson, another province that is partly Russian-occupied.
Podolyak, the presidential adviser, said Ukraine needs supplies of Western long-range missiles “to drastically curtail the key tool of the Russian army” by destroying the warehouses where it stores cannon artillery used on the front line.
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