by Joshua Melvin with Sylvie Lanteaume close to the Ukraine Border
Agence France Presse
KYIV, Ukraine (AFP) — The United States believes Ukraine can win the war against Russia if it has the “right equipment”, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said Monday, following a landmark trip to Kyiv alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The visit comes as the war entered its third month, with thousands dead and millions displaced. The conflict has triggered an outburst of support from Western nations that has seen a deluge of weapons pour into Ukraine.
“The first step in winning is believing that you can win. And so they believe that we can win,” Austin told a group of journalists after he and Blinken met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“We believe that we can win, they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support.”
Austin went on to say that the US hoped the Russian military would be exhausted in Ukraine, preventing it from launching further invasions in the future.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” said Austin.
For months, Zelensky has been begging for heavy weapons — including artillery and fighter jets — from western countries, vowing his forces could turn the tide of the war with more firepower.
The calls appear to be resonating, with a host of NATO countries pledging in recent days to provide a range of heavy weapons and equipment to Ukraine, despite protests from Moscow.
The US has been a leading donor of finance and weaponry to Ukraine and a key sponsor of sanctions targeting Russia, but had not yet sent any top officials to Kyiv, while several European leaders had travelled there to underscore their support.
Austin and Blinken said US diplomats will begin a gradual return to Ukraine this week and announced $700 million (653 million euros) in additional military aid.
– Call for talks –
The highly sensitive trip by two of President Joe Biden’s top cabinet members came as fighting continued to rage in Ukraine, casting a long shadow over Easter celebrations in the largely Orthodox country.
As Ukrainians marked a sombre Easter, with many braving bombardment for blessings, Russian forces showed no sign of easing their attacks.
Five civilians were killed and another five wounded in Donetsk on Sunday, the besieged eastern region’s Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said. Authorities also reported a death in northeastern Kharkiv.
The day before, a missile strike on the southern city of Odessa left eight dead and at least 18 wounded, according to Zelensky, who said five missiles hit the historic city.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had targeted a major depot stocking foreign weapons near Odessa.
Zelensky accused Russia of being a terrorist state, one that has devastated the port city of Mariupol with weeks of unrelenting bombardment.
And with thousands of its fighters and civilians in Mariupol facing increasingly dire conditions, Kyiv said Sunday it had invited Moscow to talks near the sprawling Azovstal steel plant, where Ukrainian soldiers are still holding out.
“We invited Russians to hold a special round of talks on the spot, right next to the walls of Azovstal,” the last Ukrainian stronghold in the strategic port, said Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych.
There was no immediate response from Russia. Its president, Vladimir Putin, had ordered his forces not to assault the plant, but the Ukrainians say the attacks continue unabated.
– ‘Pause to save lives’ –
On Sunday, the United Nations’ Ukraine crisis coordinator Amin Awad called for an “immediate stop” to fighting in Mariupol to allow trapped civilians to leave.
“The lives of tens of thousands, including women, children and older people, are at stake in Mariupol,” Awad said in a statement.
“We need a pause in fighting right now to save lives.”
The call came a day after the latest attempt to evacuate civilians from Mariupol failed.
In a message posted on social media Sunday, Sviatoslav Palamar — deputy commander of the far-right Azov Regiment, which is sheltering in a warren of tunnels under the steel plant — said Russian forces continued to rain down fire on Azovstal.
Another Ukrainian commander Sergey Volyna described the situation in the complex as “very difficult” and reiterated calls for the international community to help those remaining escape.
“We will not have time to wait for a military solution to the situation, the situation is very critical. Very heated. I don’t know how much time we have,” he said in an interview.
Mariupol, which the Kremlin claims to have “liberated”, is pivotal to Russia’s war plans to forge a land bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea — and possibly beyond, as far as Moldova.
The latest fighting followed an announcement earlier this week from a senior Russian military officer, who said Moscow aimed to take full control over the eastern Donbas region and southern Ukraine.