RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany/KYIV: The United States and its allies met at a German air base on Tuesday to pledge new packages of ever heavier weapons for Ukraine, brushing off a threat by Moscow that their support for Kyiv could lead to nuclear war.
US officials have shifted emphasis this week from speaking mainly about helping Ukraine defend itself to bolder talk of a Ukrainian victory that would weaken Russia’s ability to threaten its neighbours.
They have lately approved shipments of hundreds of millions of dollars in arms, including artillery and drones they held back from sending in earlier phases of the war, and want their allies to do the same.
“Nations from around the world stand united in our resolve to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s imperial aggression,” Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said, welcoming officials from more than 40 countries to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, headquarters of US air power in Europe. “Ukraine clearly believes that it can win, and so does everyone here.” In a notable shift, Germany, where the government had come under pressure after refusing Ukrainian pleas for heavy weapons, announced it would now send “Gepard” light tanks with anti-aircraft guns.
“The real significance of this decision lies not in the difference Gepards may make on the battlefield, but in the signal it sends,” said Marcel Dirsus, non-resident fellow at Kiel University’s Institute for Security Policy.
In a marked escalation of Russian rhetoric, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was asked on state TV about the prospect of World War Three and whether the current situation was comparable to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis that nearly caused nuclear war.
“The danger is serious, real. And we must not underestimate it,” Lavrov said, according to the ministry’s transcript of the interview. “Nato, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.” Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters while flying to Tuesday’s meeting that the next several weeks in Ukraine would be “very, very critical”.
“They need continued support in order to be successful on the battlefield. And that’s really the purpose of this conference,” he said, describing the aim as coordinating aid that includes heavy weapons such as howitzer artillery.
Austin, who visited Kyiv along with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday, had said on Monday: “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.” Germany, Russia’s biggest energy consumer, also said it hoped to eliminate Russian oil from its supplies within days.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited Moscow on a peace mission, although Kyiv and Western countries said they doubted he could achieve much.
“We are extremely interested in finding ways in order to create the conditions for effective dialogue, create the conditions for a ceasefire as soon as possible, create the conditions for a peaceful solution,” Guterres said at a meeting with Lavrov, ahead of talks with President Vladimir Putin.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that while a diplomatic breakthrough was unlikely, there was hope Guterres could help the humanitarian situation, especially around Mariupol, where Ukraine says hundreds of civilians are trapped with the city’s last defenders inside a blockaded steel works.
Kyiv and its allies played down Lavrov’s remarks about nuclear war, which a British minister called “bravado”.
Russia had lost its “last hope to scare the world off supporting Ukraine,” Kuleba tweeted after Lavrov’s interview.
“This only means Moscow senses defeat.” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby decried what he called Lavrov’s “escalatory rhetoric”.
“It’s obviously unhelpful, not constructive, and certainly is not indicative of what a responsible (world power) ought to be doing in the public sphere,” Kirby said. “A nuclear war cannot be won and it shouldn’t be fought. There’s no reason for the current conflict in Ukraine to get to that level at all.” CONCERN ABOUT MOLDOVA To the west of Ukraine, there were fears unrest could spread to Moldova, where Russian troops have occupied a separatist region along the Ukrainian border, Transdniestria, since the 1990s. Two radio masts were destroyed by explosions early on Tuesday, following other blasts in Transdniestria on Monday.
The separatist authorities said they were raising their terrorism threat level to red, while the Kremlin said it was concerned. Russia’s TASS news agency quoted the separatist leader as saying the attacks could be traced back to Ukraine.
Moldova’s pro-Western President Maia Sandu blamed the “escalation attempts” on “factions from within the Transdniestrian region who are pro-war forces and interested in destabilising the situation in the region”.
Sandu’s government expressed alarm last week after a top Russian general said Moscow aims to seize a path through Ukraine to Transdniestria, where he said Russian speakers needed protection from oppression. Moldova, an ex-Soviet state, has close cultural and linguistic ties to Nato member Romania.
Russia’s two-month-old attacks of Ukraine has left thousands dead or injured, reduced towns and cities to rubble, and forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad.
Moscow calls its actions a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists. Ukraine and the West call this a false pretext for an unprovoked war to seize territory.
Russia was forced to pull its huge attacks force back from Kyiv’s outskirts last month, but has since announced new war objectives to focus mainly on the east, sending more troops there for an assault on two provinces where it backs separatists.
Ukraine’s general staff said on Tuesday Russia’s offensive continued in the eastern Kharkiv region with Russian forces trying to advance towards a village called Zavody.
Russia is probably trying to encircle heavily fortified Ukrainian positions in the east, the British military said in an update on Tuesday, noting forces were trying to advance towards the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.