Russia’s top diplomat and America’s top defense official traded charges of saber-rattling Tuesday, as military leaders from the U.S. and more than three dozen allies met in Germany to discuss how to speed up arms flows to Ukraine as it seeks to halt a coming offensive by invading Russian troops in the east and south.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, presiding over the conference at the U.S. air base in Ramstein, Germany Tuesday, denounced the warlike rhetoric coming from the Kremlin and suggested to reporters after the one-day meeting that the prospect of eventual Ukrainian membership in NATO — a “red line” cited by Russian President Vladimir Putin to justify the invasion two months ago — remains a live option.
“I think that NATO will always stand by its principles of maintaining an open door,” he said. “In the future, if the possibility exists, I think Ukraine will seek to once again apply to become a member of NATO.”
On a day when a Russian missile badly damaged a key bridge linking southern Ukraine with neighboring Romania and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres traveled to Moscow for talks with Mr. Putin, Mr. Austin and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov engaged in a remarkably blunt exchange over the invasion and the flood of U.S. and Western arms that have helped prop up the government in Kyiv. Mr. Austin had angered the Kremlin the day before on a visit to the Ukrainian capital by saying the U.S. hopes not only that Russia loses the war but that it will be “weakened” by the clash.
Mr. Lavrov, speaking on Russian TV Monday night, accused NATO of risking a “third world war” with Russia over Ukraine in the “false hope” of wearing down the Russian forces. Asked about the possibility of a nuclear war, Mr. Lavrov said the risks were “very significant.”
“I don’t want the danger to be artificially inflated [but] it is serious, real. It cannot be underestimated,” Mr. Lavrov said.
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Mr. Austin said Tuesday such rhetoric was “very unhelpful,” adding, “Nobody wants to see a nuclear war happen. It’s a war where all sides lose.” But the typically reserved Pentagon chief did not back down from the comments which infuriated Mr. Lavrov.
“We do want to make it harder for Russia to threaten its neighbors and leave them less able to do that,” Mr. Austin said.
Keeping up the arms flow
The U.S and other NATO countries made clear the arms flow to Ukraine would continue. Germany is authorizing the delivery of about 50 used Gepard anti-aircraft weapons systems to Ukraine, marking a major policy change for the government. Great Britain is providing additional air defense firepower from its own stocks, while Canada is shipping eight armored vehicles to the battlefield.
“Countries have been stepping up to meet Ukraine’s urgent needs,” the U.S. defense chief said. “We don’t have any time to waste. We’ve got to move at the speed of war.”
The hastily-called meeting of the defense chiefs will become a regular event, signaling that the Biden administration believes the conflict between Ukraine and Russia will not end anytime soon.
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“Today’s gathering will become a monthly contact group on Ukraine’s self-defense. [It] will be a vehicle for nations of goodwill to intensify our efforts, coordinate our assistance, and focus on winning today’s fight and the struggles to come,” Mr. Austin said. “… We’re going to build on today’s progress and continue to reach out to nations of goodwill to help Ukraine defend itself.”
On Monday, Mr. Austin said his visit alongside Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Ukraine’s top leaders focused on the tasks that would enable them to win the current fight with Russia and build for the next one. It was the highest-ranking U.S. delegation to visit Ukraine in the two-month war.
“We talked about security force assistance and we talked about training,” he said. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “did express his deep appreciation — along with the minister of defense and the chief of defense —their deep appreciation for what the American people have continued to do to ensure that we get them as much assistance as possible, as quickly as possible.”
Given the mounting losses of troops and weaponry so far in the troubled operation, Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has made Russia weaker and less militarily capable, the defense secretary said.
“It will be harder for them to replace some of their capabilities going forward because of restrictions and sanctions,” Mr. Austin said.
While Ukrainian troops were able to push back Russia’s initial onslaught on Kyiv and other prime targets, Moscow is continuing to re-focus its offensive in the disputed Donbas region. Russian advances amid heavy fighting were reported in the region, the Associated Press reported, with Kreminna, a town on the western edge of the Donbas region, apparently falling after days of street-by-street fighting, according to the British military.
But the U.S. and its NATO allies are shipping artillery and other heavy weapons to the area as Ukrainian forces dig in against an expected Russian offensive. The Pentagon is shipping 90 U.S. military 155-mm howitzers to Ukraine, along with more than 180,000 artillery rounds.
Retired Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, who led NATO from 2013 to 2016, said Mr. Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has backfired.
“Mr. Putin is getting exactly what he did not want,” Gen. Breedlove told the Associated Press. “He’s getting more weapons forward; he’s getting more NATO forward, and he’s getting more America in Europe.”
The U.N.’s Mr. Guterres has faced criticism for not taking a more active and visible role in the crisis. On the visit to Moscow, he declared the U.N.’s readiness to provide humanitarian relief to Ukrainian citizens caught up in the fighting in Mariupol and other besieged cities, but also stressed Russia bore the brunt of the responsibility for the war.
“There is one thing that is true and obvious, and no argument can change,” Mr. Guterres said. “We have no Ukrainian troops in the territory of the Russian Federation, but we do have Russian troops in the Ukrainian Federation.”
Mr. Putin for his part blamed Kyiv for the failure so far to reach a diplomatic end to the fighting and denied widespread reports that Russian forces had committed atrocities against Ukrainian citizens in towns such as Bucha before being forced to retreat.
“Russian forces had no connections to Bucha,” Mr. Putin claimed at one point. “We know who did it. We know who prepared this provocation, the means they used. We know who they are.”
Officials in Poland and Bulgaria Tuesday said Russia was expanding its offensive on another front, announcing plans by state-owned Gazprom to suspend natural gas deliveries to the two NATO members starting Wednesday. They would be the first such supply halts since Mr. Putin demanded last month that “unfriendly” importers of Russian energy pay in rubles, the Russian currency, the Associated Press reported.
Poland has taken in more Ukrainian refugees than any other country in the two months since the fighting broke out, and is also the prime overland transport route for allied arms and supplies going into Ukraine.
— This article was based in part on wire service reports.