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KYIV, Ukraine – President Volodymyr Zelenskiy thanked Poland for its “historic” help in rallying Western support for Ukraine during a visit to Warsaw and said Ukrainian troops were still fighting for Bakhmut in the east but could withdraw if they risked being cut off.
Poland has provided vital weaponry to Kyiv since Russia’s invasion and taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees. During Zelenskiy’s visit, Warsaw announced it would send 10 more MiG fighter jets to Kyiv on top of four provided earlier.
Polish President Andrzej Duda said Warsaw is also working to securing additional security guarantees for Ukraine at a NATO summit to be held in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in July.
“…That will strengthen the military potential of Ukraine,” Duda said at a joint news conference with Zelenskiy.
Zelenskiy said Ukrainian troops faced a really difficult situation in Bakhmut and Kyiv would take “corresponding” decisions to protect them if they risk being cut off by Russian invasion forces.
He said Kyiv’s forces in Bakhmut sometimes advanced a little only to be pushed back by Russian forces, but that they remained inside the city. “We are in Bakhmut and the enemy does not control it,” Zelenskiy said.
Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-occupied Donetsk province, has proven one of the bloodiest and longest battles of Russia’s invasion, now in its 14th month. Kyiv’s forces have held out against a Russian onslaught with heavy losses on both sides and the town, a mining and transport hub reduced to ruin after months of street fighting and bombardment.
“For me, the most important is not to lose our soldiers and of course if there is a moment of even hotter events and the danger we could lose our personnel because of encirclement – of course the corresponding correct decisions will be taken by generals there,” Zelenskiy said.
He appeared to be referring to the idea of withdrawing.
Ukrainian military commanders have stressed the importance of holding Bakhmut and other towns and inflicting losses prior to the anticipated counteroffensive.
Mercenaries from the Wagner group – who have spearheaded the assault on Bakhmut – said at the weekend they had captured the city center, a claim dismissed by Kyiv.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War said the Wagner fighters had made advances in Bakhmut and were likely to continue trying to consolidate control of the city center and push westward through dense urban areas.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
Playing the China card
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, was visiting China after he and US President Joe Biden agreed they would try to engage Beijing to hasten the end of the Russian assault on Ukraine, now in its second year.
China has called for a comprehensive ceasefire and described its position on the conflict as “impartial”, even though the two pledged a “no limits” partnership shortly before the invasion.
Both Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, due in Beijing shortly after him, have said they want to persuade China to use its influence over Russia to bring peace in Ukraine, or to at least deter Beijing from directly supporting Moscow in the conflict.
The US and NATO have said China was considering sending arms to Russia, which Beijing has denied.
Any Chinese supply of lethal aid to Russia for the war in Ukraine would be a “historic mistake with profound implications,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference in Brussels on Wednesday.
‘Shoulder to shoulder’
Poland has played a big role in persuading Western allies to supply battle tanks and other heavy weapons to Ukraine, which helped Kyiv stem and sometimes reverse Russian advances so far.
“You have stood shoulder to shoulder with us, and we are grateful for it,” Zelenskiy said after Duda presented him with Poland’s highest award, the Order of the White Eagle. “I believe that these are historic relations, a historic result, and historic strength between our countries.”
Duda said he was confident Ukraine would emerge victorious from the conflict. “We have no doubt that your conduct is saving Europe from a deluge of Russian imperialism”.
Zelenskiy invited Polish businesses to come to Ukraine before the war ends to secure a better position on Ukrainian markets as well as in the post-war reconstruction drive.
On Tuesday, the United States pledged $2.6 billion more in military assistance for Zelenskiy’s government, including three air surveillance radars, anti-tank rockets and fuel trucks, taking pledged US military aid to more than $35 billion.
Moscow’s embassy in Washington accused the United States of wanting to drag out the conflict as long as possible, Russian news agency TASS said.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote on Telegram that MiG fighter jets from Poland would “significantly strengthen our defense, allow us to make our skies safer, save the lives of our citizens and also reduce the destruction caused by Russian attacks”.
The West has stepped up aid as Ukrainian forces prepare to mount a counteroffensive in the east against Russian forces, although when exactly it might kick off has not been disclosed.
Spain said six Leopard 2A4 tanks it has promised to send to Ukraine would leave the country in the second half of April, later than initially planned. Spain has also trained 40 tank crew members and 15 mechanics at a military base in the northeastern city of Zaragoza.
Other NATO countries including Germany, Poland, and Portugal have promised to send a total of 48 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine. – Rappler.com