US talk of 'victory' against Russia has some allies nervous

Ukrainian soldiers at a defensive position in Zaporizhzhia on May 1, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

BRUSSELS (NYTIMES) - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi travelled to Ukraine's capital over the weekend, leading the second senior US delegation to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky in as many weeks and declare support for his country's fight to beat back the Russian invasion.

With each visit – the secretaries of state and defence travelled to Kyiv last weekend –the promise of US commitment to a Ukrainian victory appears to grow, even as how the US defines victory has remained uncertain.

On Sunday (May 1), a day after her visit to Ukraine, Mrs Pelosi told a news conference in Poland: "America stands with Ukraine. We stand with Ukraine until victory is won. And we stand with Nato."

Mrs Pelosi, the second in line to succeed President Joe Biden, is the highest-ranking US official to visit Kyiv since the war began, and her words carry weight, seeming to underscore an expanded view of US and allied war aims.

Her visit, with a congressional delegation, followed a joint visit to Kyiv by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin only last Sunday. Mr Austin caused some controversy and debate afterwards when he appeared to shift the goal of the war from defending Ukraine's independence and territorial sovereignty to weakening Russia.

"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," Mr Austin said, implying that the US wanted to erode Russian military power for years to come – presumably so long as President Vladimir Putin of Russia remains in power.

In one positive development on Sunday, the United Nations (UN) and the International Committee of the Red Cross helped organise what was described as an "ongoing" evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol, where they have been taking shelter with a dwindling number of Ukrainian soldiers who have refused to surrender to the Russians. Between 80 and 100 civilians arrived in a convoy of buses at a temporary accommodation centre 29km east of the city, in the village of Bezimenne.

The evacuation appeared to be the fruit of a visit to both Mr Putin in Moscow and Mr Zelensky in Kyiv last week by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who called the war in Ukraine "an absurdity". Mr Guterres and the Red Cross have been working to get humanitarian aid and supplies of food and water to civilians trapped by the fighting; any serious peace negotiations still appear far off.

In a Twitter message, Mr Zelensky applauded the evacuation of what he said was a "first group of about 100 people", and said that "tomorrow we'll meet them in Zaporizhzhia".

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, or OCHA, said in a statement that it would not provide details of the effort while it was continuing; further evacuations are expected to resume on Monday.

Russian forces have not yet been able to finally take the last slice of Mariupol, which no longer matters militarily but which has been an inspiring symbol of Ukrainian bravery, morale and resistance that is bound to go down in Ukrainian history.

But if there is a new allied consensus about supplying Ukraine with heavier and more sophisticated weapons for the latest stage of the war in eastern Ukraine, there is no allied consensus about switching the war aim from Ukraine to Russia.

There is a sense in Europe that "the US is dragging everyone into a different war", said Professor François Heisbourg, a French defence analyst, citing similar comments by Mr Biden about "the butcher of Moscow" and how "Putin must go". Some wonder what Washington is trying to say – or do.

"To help Ukraine prevail is not about waging war against Russia for reasons related to its governance," Prof Heisbourg said. "Regime change may be a vision but not a war aim."

He and others said that such talk from Washington plays perfectly into Mr Putin's narrative that Nato is waging war against Russia, and that Russia is fighting a defensive war for its survival in Ukraine.

That may give Mr Putin the excuse on May 9, the annual celebration of the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, to declare this "special military operation" a war, which would allow him, if he chooses, to mobilise the population and use conscripts widely in the battle.

Talk of victory over Russia "gives easy ammunition to the other side and creates the fear that the West may go further, and it is not what we want," said Dr Ulrich Speck, a German analyst. "We don't want to cut Russia into pieces."

Mr Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador to the US and the UN, commented on Twitter: "The support to Ukraine in its modalities and its objectives should be agreed at a political level between allies. Right now, we are sleepwalking to nobody knows where."

In response, Moscow has raised the tone of its own rhetoric. Last Wednesday, Mr Putin said that any countries who "create a strategic threat to Russia" during this war in Ukraine can expect "retaliatory strikes" that would be "lightning fast". Days before, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "Nato is essentially going to war with Russia through a proxy and arming that proxy".

Mr Putin's military, having lost what Britain estimates to have been at least 15,000 killed in action – that is more than in the Soviet Union's entire war in Afghanistan – has been struggling to cut supply lines of Western arms, munitions and heavy weapons to Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine.

Workers repairing damaged train lines in Bucha on May 1, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

On Sunday, the Russians said they had bombed a runway and a munitions dump at a military airfield near Odessa that was storing Western arms, and Russia has been attempting to attack roads and especially railway terminals, since most heavy weapons are travelling east by rail. The Russian aim is to slowly cut off or encircle the bulk of Ukraine's army east of the Dnipro River and starve it of new supplies.

But that grinding effort is going slowly, with fierce artillery battles and high casualties on both sides.

It is not just Ukraine's military that is being starved of supplies. There is now a shortage of gasoline and diesel, at least for civilian use, stemming from Russia's blockade of Ukrainian ports and attacks on refineries and fuel depots. Long lines for gasoline have been seen even in cities like Lviv, and there are concerns about the impact of the shortages on agriculture, even in fields untouched by the war.

A rescuer standing in front of a damaged building in Odessa on April 24, 2022. PHOTO: AFP

A report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation said that only one-fifth of almost 1,300 large agribusinesses surveyed by the government in mid-March had enough fuel to operate the farm equipment needed to plant corn, barley and other crops this spring, which is already causing rising food prices in countries far from Ukraine.

In a possible indication of flagging Russian morale, the chief of staff of the Russian Armed Forces, General Valery Gerasimov, the country's top uniformed officer, made a visit to a dangerous front-line position in eastern Ukraine this weekend in an effort to "change the course" of Russia's offensive there, according to a senior Ukrainian official with knowledge of the visit.

Ukrainian forces launched an attack on a Russian headquarters in Izium on Saturday evening, but Gen Gerasimov had already left to return to Russia, the official said. Still, some 200 soldiers, including at least one general, were killed, the Ukrainian official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive military operation.

A US official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that Gen Gerasimov had been in eastern Ukraine but did not confirm the rest of the Ukrainian account.

Fighting has intensified around the large eastern city of Kharkiv in recent days as Ukrainian forces have attempted to push away Russian units. Though the gains have been small, they are emblematic of both the Ukrainian and Russian forces' strategy as the war drags into its third month, one that focuses on a village at a time and leverages concentrated artillery fire to dislodge one another.

A plant burning following Russian shelling in Kharkiv on April 30, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

Ukraine's military said in a statement on Saturday that it had been able to retake four villages around Kharkiv: Verkhnya Rohanka, Ruska Lozova, Slobidske and Prilesne. The claims have been hard to verify since much of those areas are currently closed to the media; on Sunday, Ukraine announced that it had rebuffed Russian advances towards villages in the Donbas, but that, too, could not be confirmed.

Ukrainian forces were also suspected of another attack over the border near the Russian city of Belgorod, a staging area for Russian forces, where a fire broke out in a defence ministry facility, the regional governor said.

The Russian forces in control of the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson and its surrounding province started to enforce a transition to the Russian rouble from Ukrainian currency on Sunday, a move that Ukrainian officials have described as part of an attempt to scrub a part of the country clean of its national identity and embed it in Moscow's sphere of influence.

At the same time, the Ukrainians reported on Sunday that nearly all cellular and Internet service in the area was down. They accused Russian forces of cutting service, saying it was an attempt to keep Ukrainians from seeing truthful information about the war.

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