But within Ukraine, where Russia continues its brutal assault, an aide to President Volodymyr Zelesky stated that officials were “very disappointed” by the outcome of the series Wednesday between NATO and European Union leaders in Brussels, which brought Biden to Europe.
“We expected more bravery. We expected some bold decisions,” Andriy Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, told the Washington-based Atlantic Council via live video Friday.
U.S. Officials from Ukraine believe the Russian operation is failing in certain aspects, due to strong Ukrainian resistance, heavy Russian losses and Russia’s signaling Friday that it might be narrowing its focus. But Yermak’s comments served to remind Ukraine that it is still outmanned and outgunned, with more destruction occurring each day. The Pentagon said Friday Russia has begun to mobilize military reinforcements to possibly send into Ukraine.
By issuing a general statement of ongoing military support, while continuing to deny Ukraine’s requests to send it Soviet-era jet fighters, impose a no-fly zone against Russian aircraft over Ukraine, and speed the flow of more heavy weaponry, Yermak said, NATO “is just trying to ensure that it is not provoking Russia to a military conflict” with the West, calling the alliance’s inaction “appeasement.”
“We need very concrete things. He said that we must remind you again.
Yermak said Ukraine needs NATO to “close our sky” to Russian air power and provide “intelligence in real time,” as well as more antiaircraft and antitank weaponry — some of which is now in short supply in the West.
Yermak also demanded more long-range artillery and smaller weapons.
“Without it,” Yermak said, “our war will not be able to stand.”
Far from an anticipated rush toward full occupation of a country with a far weaker military, Russia appeared Friday to have at least partially lost control of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, on the Black Sea, according to defense officials, the first of a handful of midsized cities it has struggled to occupy in the five weeks since the invasion began.
Ukrainian forces, bolstered by armed civilians, have pushed back Russian advances in other parts of the country, as well. According to the Pentagon, Ukraine made an “incremental” advance against Russia in areas other than Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. Other offensives are underway in western Kyiv. According to ground rules established by the Pentagon under anonymity, senior U.S. defense officials said that Russian troops have now begun to set up defensive positions after being stalled in Kyiv for several weeks.
While Russia’s objective in the invasion initially appeared to be seizing Kyiv, the Kremlin is now emphasizing its intention to control the Donbas region in the east, where Ukrainian troops have been fighting against two breakaway areas since 2014. Moscow has recognized the region as two separate “republics.”
“The combat potential of the Armed Forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which … makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal, the liberation of Donbas,” Sergey Rudskoy, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, said in a speech Friday.
The renewed attention on Donbas may be an attempt to save face as Russia fails to reach their bigger goals, like the capture of Kyiv or the decapitation and dismemberment of the Ukrainian government. The Russians made small gains in eastern Russia, but now they may want to expand the territory held by separatists. They could declare victory. This could be a trick to let beleaguered Russian troops rest.
It is not clear whether Russian troops will be pulled from elsewhere to reinforce Donbas, the U.S. defense official said, but there is evidence that they have shifted how they fight in other places.
““It seems that the Russians are not for the moment pursuing a land offensive towards Kyiv,” said the official. They are digging in. They are establishing defensive positions.”
Rudskoy also issued the first Russian casualty assessment since the beginning of March, saying that 1,351 service members have died, and 3,825 have been injured. NATO estimated Wednesday that 7,000-15,000 Russian troops have been killed in four weeks of fighting in Ukraine, according to an alliance senior military official.
The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under NATO ground rules, said the estimate was based on several factors, including information from Ukrainian officials, what the Russian side has released, and open sources. By comparison, Russia lost about 15,000 troops over a decade of war in Afghanistan after it invaded in late 1979.
Among the most recent Russian casualties, according to a Western official and a Ukrainian journalist, was Col. Yuri Medvedev, commanding officer of the 37th Motor Rifle Brigade, who was attacked and injured by troops under his command after they suffered heavy losses in the fighting outside Kyiv. According to Roman Tsymbaliuk’s Facebook post, the troops drove a tank into Medvedev and inflicted both of his legs.
Although Tsymbaliuk said the colonel had been hospitalized, a senior Western official said he believed Medvedev had been killed.
Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine’s population centers and other targets continued, with the senior defense official reporting Moscow is flying 300 sorties over Ukraine per day — an increase over a week ago. The Ukrainian air force claimed on Friday that Russian missiles hit Vinnytsia’s command center, west-central Ukraine. This caused some damage to buildings.
The southern port city of Mariupol remained under heavy Russian attack and cut off from food, water and humanitarian assistance. Matilda Bogner (head of United Nations Human Rights Monitoring Mission to Ukraine) stated at a news conference that she had “increasing” information and satellite images about mass graves in Mariupol.
One mass grave identified appears to hold some 200 bodies, she said, although it remained unclear how many of the deceased were civilian casualties of the war.
Bogner said the U.N. human rights office had also documented 22 cases of Ukrainian officials disappearing or being forcibly detained in Russian-controlled territories, 13 of whom have since been released. Numerous journalists working in southeast Russia have been murdered or disappeared.
In his Friday remarks, Yermak thanked the United States, and all Western countries. Zelensky has also expressed appreciation in numerous videos addresses he gave to Western legislators and others. Yermak, like Zelensky has stressed that Ukraine is NATO’s frontline against Russian aggression and that NATO needs to stop it.
Biden, in Poland, touted an additional $1 billion he had previously announced to aid the millions of Ukrainians who have fled the violence into neighboring countries and beyond, as well as the millions displaced and suffering inside the country. Additionally, the United States pledged to supply more than 2 million in military equipment, which includes Stinger anti-air-defense missiles and Javelin anti-tank weapons.
As Russia began its offensive in February, the State Department asked countries that had previously sold such weapons to send Ukraine any Ukraine. It promised that the United States would issue waivers quickly to allow them to be transferred to another country and replenish their arsenals using weapons from its own stocks.
But, as Ukraine’s demand has increased, certain weapons such as Stingers have become increasingly scarce. Production lines for the missiles, which first entered service in 1981, ceased some time ago and “we are exploring options to more quickly replenish U.S. inventories, and backfill depleted stocks of allies and partners,” Defense Department spokeswoman Jessica R. Maxwell said.
” “It will take some time to revive an industrial base…to allow production to resume,” Maxwell stated in an email. She stated that there are two options for expediting production: adding workers to the line or developing alternative components to obsolete parts.
Mike Nachshen, senior director for international communications of Raytheon Missiles and Defense, which produces Stingers, said that they “recognize the urgent need to bolster inventories” and are working with government and industry “to accelerate production timelines so that we can deliver additional units of this critical combat capability as soon as possible.”
The administration is considering invoking the Defense Production Act, which gives the executive emergency authority to control domestic industries and speed up production of certain critical items. Both Biden and President Donald Trump invoked the act to deal with the covid-19 pandemic. The U.S. pledge to send U.S. defense supplies from other countries to Ukraine is particularly important to the eastern NATO member states concerned about their frontlines in a potential confrontation with Russia.
In particular, Ukraine has asked for supplements to the Russian-made S-300 air defense system already in its arsenal, whose missiles fly higher and farther than the short-range Stingers. The system is also available to Greece and Slovakia, both of which are ex-members of the Soviet-era Warsaw Pact.
Bulgaria and Greece have declined. Slovakia has said it would transfer the system, as long as the aging S-300 is immediately replaced, an action that requires a host of down-line changes to other capabilities once an alternative has been identified. U.S. Defense secretary Lloyd Austin stated that officials were working to make it happen during a recent visit to Slovakia.
Radovan Javorcik, the Slovakian ambassador to the United States, said in an email this week that his government was in “close consultation” with allies, but “until a concrete replacement of the S-300 system has been identified, Slovakia will not be able to decide on a possible donation of the system.”
DeYoung and Horton reported from Washington. Miriam Berger, Liz Sly and Mary Ilyushina were in London. Dan Lamothe was in Washington.