Ukraine mounts counteroffensive to drive Russians back from Kyiv, key cities

Kyiv has been spared the worst of the fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine (AFP)
Kyiv has been spared the worst of the fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine (AFP)

Summary

Strike on Moscow’s forces in Kherson destroys helicopters as Russian bombing continues

KYIV (UKRAINE) : Ukraine said Wednesday it has launched a counteroffensive against Russian forces encroaching on its capital, Kyiv, and other key cities​ hours before President Volodymyr Zelensky is due to address Congress about the war in his country.

The thump of distant shelling echoed through the center of Kyiv overnight, as Ukrainian forces appeared to counterattack in the outlying towns of Irpin, Bucha and Hostomel, which have been severely damaged in weeks of street fighting and artillery exchanges. The city and the surrounding region were under an all-day curfew Wednesday.

Ukrainian forces also said they pressed an offensive south and east of the southern port of Mykolayiv, moving in the direction of Kherson, the only Ukrainian regional capital occupied by Russia since the war began Feb. 24. Ukraine said it carried out an airstrike on the Kherson airport, which is now a Russian air base, and satellite imagery from the tarmac showed seven destroyed or damaged Russian helicopters, some of them engulfed in flames. Kyiv also said it shot down two Russian Su-30SM jets over the Black Sea off Odessa.

Moscow has largely not commented on combat losses and said its campaign was progressing.

Russia aimed for a quick capture of Kyiv, and its forces thrust deep into Ukrainian territory up to the city’s outskirts in the north, west and east in the first days of the war. But that offensive stalled out amid poor planning and logistics, and unexpectedly stiff resistance from Ukrainian forces armed with Western-provided antitank and anti-aircraft missiles.

The counteroffensive by Ukrainian armed forces “radically changes the parties’ disposition," tweeted Mykhailo Podolyak, a Ukrainian presidential adviser who is negotiating a possible cease-fire with Russia. The talks, via videoconference, will resume today, he added, saying that there is room for compromise despite “fundamental contradictions."

The main area of progress between the two sides concerns addressing mutual security concerns, a Ukrainian official said. Ukraine, ready to recognize that membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is unlikely anytime soon, is considering dropping that in exchange for binding security guarantees from its Western partners and Russia, the official said. That, however, is only one item on the agenda, and there is little scope for compromise on Russia’s demands that Kyiv recognize the 2014 annexation of Crimea by Moscow and the self-proclaimed independence of the Russian-backed statelets in Donetsk and Luhansk.

“I don’t see a breakthrough—at this stage both sides believe they can win the war," the official said.

“Any war ends in agreement," Mr. Zelensky said in an overnight address. “As I am told, the positions in the negotiations sound more realistic. However, time is still needed for the decisions to be in Ukraine’s interests."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday said that negotiations with Ukraine aren’t easy, but there are signs of compromise. Mr. Lavrov, cited by Russian state news agency TASS, said that the two sides were close to agreeing on some issues and that he held out hope that this could include the topic of Ukraine’s neutral status.

Mr. Zelensky is scheduled to deliver a virtual address to members of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, and is likely to reinforce his plea for more assistance as the country tries to repel Russia. President Biden signed into law on Tuesday a government spending bill that includes $13.6 billion in security, humanitarian and economic aid for Ukraine. Mr. Biden is expected to announce more than $1 billion in new military assistance to Ukraine’s government as early as Wednesday, according to U.S. officials.

Weapons already provided by the U.S. and others have been indispensable in allowing Ukrainian forces to repel Russian attacks and hold the line so far, according to Ukrainian officials. However, as Russian airstrikes and missiles devastate Ukrainian cities, Kyiv is pleading for more, particularly equipment that would shore up the country’s air defenses.

On Tuesday, leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia traveled to Kyiv and met with Mr. Zelensky in a show of support for Ukraine.

In an emotional televised speech Tuesday, Mr. Zelensky implored Canadian politicians to increase military support and help implement a no-fly zone over his country to stop Russian bombardments. He told the Canadian lawmakers that 97 children had died since the Russian military began airstrikes on Ukraine.

“Please close the sky," he said in his address to Canada’s parliament. “You all need to do more to stop Russia and protect Ukraine and protect Europe. They are destroying everything."

NATO has turned down requests for a no-fly zone, saying it would risk drawing the West into war with Russia.

Separately, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov is due to participate in a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, where the alliance is expected to discuss additional military assistance to the embattled country, as well as a reinforcement of its eastern flank to ward off Russia.

That gathering is a precursor to a hastily called meeting of NATO leaders on March 24. The White House said Tuesday that Mr. Biden would head to Brussels to participate as the West wrestles with how to intensify pressure on Moscow while avoiding direct military conflict between NATO and Russia.

The group of Central European leaders visiting Kyiv—all from NATO states—planned to offer a broad package of support for Ukraine, the Polish government said. Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala and Prime Minister of Slovenia Janez Janša met with Mr. Zelensky and Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal as representatives of the European Council. The delegation traveled to Kyiv jointly by train and arrived in the Ukrainian capital Tuesday evening.

“Europe must guarantee Ukraine’s independence and ensure that it is ready to help in Ukraine’s reconstruction," Mr. Morawiecki said ahead of the meeting with Mr. Zelensky.

“I am sure that with such friends, with such countries, with such neighbors and partners, we will really be able to win," Mr. Zelensky told reporters after the meeting.

He added that the talks focused on security guarantees for Ukraine and strengthening sanctions against Russia, as well as the prospects of Ukraine’s membership of the European Union, according to Mr. Zelensky’s official website.

Since Russian troops began their assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24, they have seized territory in the south of Ukraine but been stopped short around Kyiv and elsewhere. Increasingly, its forces have resorted to bombing residential areas and civilian infrastructure in an effort to wear down Ukrainian resistance.

In the besieged port city of Mariupol, an adviser to the mayor said the city’s death toll was significantly higher than the 2,357 casualties officially confirmed, putting it closer to 20,000. “It is currently impossible to determine the exact number of victims," said Petro Andryushchenko.

Corpses lie in the street, as heavy shelling prevents residents from burying them, he said. “Death is everywhere."

Survivors are crammed into basements without food, reduced to drinking water from the drains, Mr. Andryushchenko said. Russian forces have also trapped several hundred people in a hospital in Mariupol, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, head of the regional military administration in the eastern region of Donetsk.

A convoy of food, water and medicine destined for the city has been held up for several days by Russian forces near Berdyansk. Some 20,000 people managed to flee the city in their own vehicles on Tuesday, Mr. Zelensky said.

More than three million people have fled Ukraine since the war began, 

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