White House says US, Poland working on warplanes for Ukraine

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LVIV/KYIV, UKRAINE (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - The United States is working with Poland and consulting with other North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) allies on possibly having those countries supply warplanes to Ukraine for use against Russian forces, a White House spokesman said.

The idea was rejected by several eastern European members of the alliance this week but  Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky made a “desperate plea” for eastern Europe to provide Russian-made aircraft to his country during a video call with US lawmakers on Saturday (March 5).

Several said afterward that they support an aircraft transfer, which could involve Russian-made planes on which Ukrainian pilots are trained.

Mr Zelensky addressed the  lawmakers as they consider President Joe Biden’s request for an extra US$10 billion (S$13.6 billion) in funding to respond to the Russian invasion and while the administration weighs a ban on Russian oil imports.

The Biden administration is considering finding replacements for any fighter jets Poland might send from its fleet to Ukraine, the spokesman said.

The decision is Poland’s to make, the spokesman said, adding that there are logistical and other challenges, including how to transfer aircraft from Poland to Ukraine.

“It’s no secret that the highest demand that we have is in fighting jets, attack aircrafts and air defence systems,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Polish-Ukrainian border on Saturday.

The discussion involves the possibility of sending the countries, including Poland and Slovakia, F-16 fighter jets to replace what they send Ukraine, a person familiar with the matter said.

But the F-16 process would be time-consuming and involve bidding for and awarding a contract, as well as building planes specific to that country and providing training.

With almost 300 members of the Senate and House on the video call, Mr Zelensky won pledges of support for more weaponry while facing reluctance on his appeal for Nato powers to enforce an exclusion zone for Russia’s air force. Nato and the US say that declaring a no-fly zone would risk a getting into a war with Russia.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Western sanctions were akin to war as his forces pressed their assault on Ukraine on Saturday for a 10th day and the IMF warned the conflict would have a “severe impact” on the global economy.

Moscow and Kyiv traded blame over failed plans for a brief ceasefire to enable civilians to evacuate two cities besieged by Russian forces. Russia’s invasion has already driven nearly 1.5 million refugees westward into the European Union.

Mr Putin said he wanted a neutral Ukraine that had been “demilitarised” and “denazified”, adding: “These sanctions that are being imposed are akin to a declaration of war but thank God it has not come to that.”

Ukraine and Western countries have rejected Mr Putin’s arguments as a baseless pretext for invading and have sought to squeeze Russia hard with swift and severe economic sanctions on its banks, oligarchs and others.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett met with Putin at the Kremlin on Saturday to discuss the crisis before then speaking to Mr Zelensky, Mr Bennett’s spokesman said.

Israel has offered to mediate in the conflict, though officials have downplayed expectations for a breakthrough.

Ukrainian negotiators said a third round of talks with Russia on a ceasefire would go ahead on Monday, although Moscow was less definitive. Two previous rounds were unsuccessful and Mr Zelensky has said Russia must first stop bombing.

“Together we will all rebuild our state,” Mr Zelensky told Ukrainians in a televised address Saturday evening.

“My confidence in this is reinforced by the energy of our resistance, our protest”.

No evacuations

Earlier, the International Committee of the Red Cross had said planned civilian evacuations from Mariupol and Volnovakha were unlikely to start on Saturday. The city council in Mariupol had accused Russia of not observing a ceasefire, while Moscow said Ukrainian “nationalists” were preventing civilians from leaving.

Britain said the proposed ceasefire in Mariupol – which has been without power, water and heating for days – was likely an attempt by Russia to deflect international condemnation while it resets its forces.

The port of Mariupol has endured heavy bombardment, a sign of its strategic value to Moscow due to its position between Russian-backed separatist-held eastern Ukraine and the Black Sea Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized from Kyiv in 2014.

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Russia’s Defence Ministry said its forces were carrying out a wide-ranging offensive in Ukraine and had taken several towns and villages, Interfax news agency reported.

In aerial combat near Zhytomyr, about 100km west of Kyiv, it said, four Ukrainian Su-27 fighter jets had been shot down. Reuters could not independently confirm the report.

A United Nations monitoring mission said at least 351 civilians had been confirmed killed and 707 injured in Ukraine since the start of the invasion on Feb 24, adding that the real figures were likely to be “considerably higher”.

The number of refugees could rise to 1.5 million by Sunday night from 1.3 million now, the UN refugee agency chief said.

Women and children, often numb with exhaustion, continued to pour into Poland and other neighbouring countries as well as into western Ukrainian cities such as Lviv.

“I’ve barely slept for 10 days,” said Anna Filatova, arriving in Lviv with her two daughters from heavily bombed Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city near its eastern border with Russia.

“The Russians want to flatten Kharkiv... We hate Putin.”

An extended family from Kharkiv, who left the eastern Ukraine city, arrive in Budapest, Hungary, on March 5, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on a visit to Poland, met with Mr Kuleba at the border amid tight security to discuss the provision of weapons and efforts to isolate Russia and cripple its economy.

Blinken also met refugees staying in a disused shopping mall in Poland, which has taken in the vast majority of the Ukrainians forced to flee their country.

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‘My heart is breaking'

Russians, reeling from a 30 per cent fall in the rouble’s value in the past 10 days, money transfer curbs and the exit of Western companies from IKEA to Microsoft, expressed fear for their economic future.

“My heart is breaking,” said one shopper, Viktoriya Voloshina, in the town of Rostov on Saturday.

Another woman, Lidia, said: “Today my family and I are leaving Russia.”

The International Monetary Fund said in a statement that the conflict was driving world energy and grain prices higher.

“The ongoing war and associated sanctions will also have a severe impact on the global economy,” it said, adding that it would bring Kyiv’s request for US$1.4 billion in emergency financing to its board for approval as early as next week.

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Russia also warned the EU and Nato again to stop the “pumping of state-of-the-art weapons systems” into Kyiv, citing the risk to aviation and other transport communications, ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova said, according to RIA.

Mr Putin, in one of several decrees signed on Saturday, gave his government two days to draw up a list of nations engaged in “unfriendly acts” towards Russia, its news agencies reported.

People cross a destroyed bridge as they evacuate the city of Irpin, northwest of Kyiv, during heavy shelling and bombing on March 5, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

‘Fighting fiercely’

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said 66,224 Ukrainian men had returned from abroad to join the fight against Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine’s military said armed forces “are fighting fiercely to liberate Ukrainian cities from Russian occupiers”, counter-attacking in some areas and disrupting communications.

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In Kherson, southern Ukraine, the only regional capital to have changed hands during the invasion so far, several thousand people demonstrated on its main square on Saturday.

“Kherson is Ukraine,” they chanted, demanding that Russian forces withdraw.

Eyewitnesses cited by Interfax said Russian troops fired automatic rifles into the air in an unsuccessful attempt to disperse the crowd. The soldiers later left the city centre, the eyewitnesses said.

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