Sensing a stalled Russia, West adds support and arms for Ukraine

US President Joe Biden spoke in an Alabama factory that built the Javelin missiles Ukrainian soldiers used against Russian tanks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain addressed members of Ukraine’s parliament, extolling their “finest hour.” President Emmanuel Macron of France pressed Russia’s Vladimir Putin by phone to end his “devastating aggression.” Germany helped Finland and Sweden — Russia’s Nordic neighbors once wary of provoking Putin — inch closer to joining Nato.

On Tuesday, the leaders of the West sought to capitalise on Russia’s apparent lack of battlefield momentum to show Ukraine support and strengthen its resolve — and its arsenal.

“You have exploded the myth of Putin’s invincibility and you have written one of the most glorious chapters in military history and in the life of your country,” Johnson told President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and the country’s lawmakers in a video address, the first by a foreign leader to Ukraine’s parliament.

He announced that Britain would provide a roughly $375 million package of additional weapons to Ukraine, including electronic warfare gear, a radar system and GPS-jamming equipment. And he compared Ukraine’s defense to Britain’s resistance to the Nazi onslaught in World War II. “This is Ukraine’s finest hour,” he said.

That display of determination, whether choreographed or coincidental, came as the European Union, often splintered by political and ideological faults, moved toward a united embargo against Russian oil, as the Pentagon described Russia’s offensive in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region as “anemic” and” plodding,” and as British intelligence experts issued damning new assessments of Russian military capabilities.

Still, for Ukrainian civilians, Russian firepower seemed all too effective.

The ruins of buildings in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv, Ukraine, on May 2, 2022, after weeks of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forced. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)

In the ruined city of Mariupol, Russian troops renewed shelling of the battered Azovstal steel plant and the 200 civilians still ensconced there, even as about 130 evacuees arrived for relative safety in Zaporizhzhia about 140 miles west and spoke in horror about two months in the bunkers under perpetual fire.

Russian missiles struck power substations in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, knocking out some electricity, the mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, reported on Twitter. At least nine people were killed by Russian strikes in the eastern region of Donetsk, including three civilians fetching water, according to its governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko.

Biden spoke in Alabama about how the “United States alone has committed more than 5,500 Javelins to Ukraine,” and how the Lockheed Martin missile factory workers were empowering Ukrainians to defend themselves in a battle “between autocracy and democracy.” But for all that talk, the war, now in its third month, felt like a protracted struggle.

US officials warned that Russia had plans to annex the separatist territories of Donetsk and Luhansk in the east, and the Kherson region in the south. The Russians would likely use “sham” elections to claim control, said Michael Carpenter, the American ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Some analysts wondered why Russia had not targeted Ukrainian railways and other infrastructure to stop Western weapons from reaching the front, or bombed the symbols of Ukraine’s institutions or hit the West with cyberattacks. The reason could simply be incompetence. But Putin, far from chastened, might soon upgrade what he has called the “special military operation” in Ukraine to a war, providing a justification to expand the fight and use military conscripts.

The West, Putin said Tuesday in his call with Macron, should stop supplying weapons to Ukraine, as they were contributing to “atrocities.” Peace seemed far out of reach, with Putin seriously accusing Ukraine of an “unwillingness” to negotiate, according to a Kremlin description of the call.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (File photo via AP)

But US military and political leaders, once apprehensive about goading Putin into an escalation, in recent days have explicitly stated a goal of weakening the Russian military and Putin’s ability to invade other countries.

If some European officials have worried that such language could play into Putin’s propaganda that his invasion of Ukraine is a defensive maneuver against Nato expansion, provoking Putin no longer seemed such a major concern.

In Brussels, Prime Minister Mario Draghi of Italy said the Russian aggression had called into question the “greatest achievement of the European Union: peace within our continent.” He said Russia had violated that peace and basic respect for human rights “in Mariupol, in Bucha, and in all the places where the Russian army unleashed its violence against unarmed civilians.”=

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany promised to back Nato membership for Sweden and Finland, which have suggested they want to join.

“They can count on our support,” Scholz said at a joint news conference with the Finnish and Swedish leaders.

“There is no going back,” Prime Minister Sanna Marin of Finland said. “We see now more clearly where Russia wants to take us: It is a world of spheres of influence where the stronger has the last word.”

Those political assertions of strength have found fuel in Russia’s setbacks on the battlefield. Before Johnson addressed Ukraine’s parliament, an intelligence update by the British Defense Ministry assessed that “failures in both strategic planning and operational execution” had led Russia’s military to become “significantly weaker” since the February 24 invasion — even after having doubled its defense budget from 2005 through 2018.

The report asserted that Russia’s military failures, combined with international sanctions, would have “a lasting impact” on the ability of Russian forces to recover for some time.

And while Russia struggled to make progress in Ukraine, a string of unexplained explosions and fires in southern Russia continued into Tuesday, with a blast rattling the city of Belgorod. Russian officials have in some instances blamed Ukrainians for the explosions. The Ukrainian government has a formal policy of neither confirming nor denying strikes inside Russia.

A Ukrainian territorial defense soldier patrols in a neighbor destroyed by previous fighting in Irpin, Ukraine, May 3, 2022. (David Guttenfelder/The New York Times)

On Monday, a railroad bridge in the Kursk region of Russia was destroyed in what the regional governor called sabotage. A series of suspicious fires erupted in different parts of the country. In Moscow, a fire engulfed the sprawling warehouse of a textbook company that had sought to expunge “Ukraine” references from its pages. Arkady R. Rotenberg, a close friend and former judo partner of Putin, who became a billionaire during his administration, is chairman of the company.

At least a dozen suspicious fires have broken out inside Russia recently, many of them at fuel depots near the border with Ukraine. Some have been deeper inside Russia, including at a military research institute near Moscow.

But Ukrainians, and civilians in particular, are bearing the brunt of the war.

Russia said its cruise missiles had hit a logistics center at a military airfield near Odesa. In a statement Tuesday, the country’s Defense Ministry said the strike had destroyed hangars housing Bayraktar TB2 drones, as well as missiles and ammunition from the United States and Europe.

On Tuesday, in a rare but limited victory for diplomacy, a fleet of buses, flanked by white United Nations and Red Cross SUVs, passed checkpoints and Russian-controlled territory and carried to Ukrainian-controlled territory nearly 130 women and children who for weeks had Sheltered in the belly of the sprawling steel works in Mariupol. Once a vivacious Ukrainian port city, it has become a ruin of rubble and corpse-strewn streets from incessant Russian bombing.

But on at the steel plant, almost immediately after international negotiators departed with evacuees, Russian forces struck buildings where civilians were still sheltering, according to a statement on Telegram by the Azov regiment, whose fighters are inside the plant. The Mariupol mayor, Vadym Boychenko, said more than 200 civilians remained trapped in bunkers beneath the factory and that 100,000 civilians remained in the city.

Aid workers greeted the Azovstal evacuees in a shopping complex in Zaporizhzhia, offering tea and snacks after they had subsisted on expired Russian rations heated on wood fires.

“I was in Azovstal for 2 1/2 months and they slammed us from all sides,” said Olga Savina, an elderly woman, as she emerged from a white bus. She said the sun burned her eyes after so many days underground.


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