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Us Wants To See Russia Weakened, Says Defense Secretary Austin

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“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,” Mr. Austin said Monday after the highest-level visit of U.S. officials to Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24. Mr. Blinken said: “Russia is failing, Ukraine is succeeding.”

In what could be a significant escalation of the conflict on Monday, large fires broke out at fuel-storage facilities in the Russian region of Bryansk, some 60 miles from the border with Ukraine, as well as at a nearby military fuel depot, Russian state media said. Russian missiles struck railroad targets in central Ukraine early Monday.

Russian authorities said they were investigating the fires at the facilities, which Russian state media said together contained around 15,000 tons of fuel. The blazes erupted less than a month after Russia said Ukrainian helicopters launched strikes that caused a fire at an oil depot in Russia’s Belgorod region, also bordering Ukraine. Russian state media aired security-camera footage on Monday that appeared to show a large explosion followed by a fire.

The Russian missile strikes hit rail infrastructure in the central Ukrainian region of Rivne, local officials said. They followed other missile attacks late Sunday in Poltava that struck an electricity plant and a fuel refinery.The governor of Ukraine’s central province of Vinnytsia said early Monday that Russian missile attacks had hit critical infrastructure in the region and that there were people dead and injured, though he provided no details.

The strikes came hours after Messrs. Blinken and Austin told Mr. Zelensky that Washington would reopen its embassy in Kyiv and provide Ukraine with $322 million in foreign military assistance to allow Kyiv to buy needed weapons. Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, demanded in a diplomatic note that Washington stop supplying weapons to Ukraine, Russian news agency RIA reported Monday.

“We believe that they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support,” Mr. Austin said, adding of Mr. Zelensky: “While he’s grateful for all the things we’re doing, he’s also focused on what he thinks he’ll need next in order to be successful.” Besides artillery, Ukraine has expressed an interest in getting more tanks, he said.

Mr. Zelensky said the $3.4 billion in defense support provided by the U.S. so far has been the biggest contribution to Ukraine’s defense efforts, adding that he had also discussed sanctions on Russia, financial support for Ukraine and security guarantees with the secretaries.

“I would like to thank President Biden personally and on behalf of the entire Ukrainian people for his leadership in supporting Ukraine, for his personal clear position,” he said in a statement on his website.

Messrs. Austin and Blinken hailed Ukraine’s success in fending off Russia’s initial attack on Kyiv and maintaining its sovereignty. A senior State Department official briefed reporters on the flight out of Poland about many aspects of Ukraine’s military campaign discussed with Mr. Zelensky, including Russia’s depleted forces and inability to devote many more resources to the war without compromising its stance against NATO and even Finland, which could join the alliance.

Still, U.S. officials said they recognized that Russian President Vladimir Putin could choose to escalate the war, including possibly with weapons of mass destruction.

“I suspect that May is going to be very much in his mind in wanting to show something, so we fully anticipate that he’s going to press the accelerator the best he can,” the senior official said. “We’re trying to be prepared for everything.”

Having struck Odessa in recent days, the senior official said, Mr. Putin is “looking at the entire expanse of the Black Sea coastline.”

The official declined to comment on the explosions in Bryansk in the absence of sufficient information or analysis.

At a briefing in Poland after his return from Kyiv, Mr. Blinken said he spoke to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres on Friday and that the U.N. chief, set to visit Moscow and Kyiv this week, would send a “clear, direct message” on behalf of most of the world that Russia should agree to a cease-fire, provide needed aid to civilians and stop the war.

Mr. Guterres had appealed for a four-day truce during the Orthodox Holy Week to allow for the evacuation of civilians from front-line towns and the delivery of humanitarian aid.

The cease-fire proposal was rejected by Moscow, which said it was a ruse to allow Ukraine’s military to rest and regroup.

Senior U.S. military officers at a facility in Poland described an accelerating logistical network for supplying weapons and materiel to Ukraine, as well as a regional effort to increase troop levels and exercises with members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization along the alliance’s eastern flank.

Seven 155-mm artillery pieces, along with their tow vehicles, are being processed through the facility, adding to the 18 howitzers the U.S. has already provided to Ukraine, a senior defense official said. Six dozen U.S. howitzers coming to Ukraine under a new aid package, and rounds of 155-mm artillery were visible on pallets at the Polish facility.

The focus on heavy artillery and armored vehicles comes as Russia removes some of its forces from around cities in northern Ukraine and focuses instead on the eastern Donbas region, in what is expected to be a high-stakes conflict on wide-open terrain.

Mr. Austin on Tuesday will join other defense ministers, including Ukraine’s Oleksii Reznikov, and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg at a gathering at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany. The topics discussed will include updating the representatives of more than 20 countries about the latest intelligence from the battlefield in Ukraine, security assistance to Kyiv and strengthening NATO’s defense-industrial base in the long term to support Ukraine’s defense, the defense official said.

One problem to be addressed at the gathering is Ukraine’s need for what NATO considers to be nonstandard ammunition and weapons systems, as well as discussions about whether the former Soviet country could shift toward standard NATO equipment, the official said. For example, howitzers designed to fire 152-mm rounds can’t accommodate the 155-mm caliber.

The return of a U.S. diplomatic presence to Ukraine, which follows moves by the U.K., Italy, France and other countries, will help American and Ukrainian officials to coordinate aid and other efforts in person and to prepare for a future consular operation to address the needs of citizens of both countries, the official said. The defense official declined to say whether U.S. Marines would help guard the embassy in Kyiv, saying the military would respond to the State Department’s needs.

Asked whether the increased U.S. focus on Ukraine risks increasing tensions with Russia, the U.S. official said Washington has no plans to involve its troops in the conflict.

 

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