KYIV/WASHINGTON – Ukraine’s Defence Minister is expected in Paris on Tuesday to meet French President Emmanuel Macron amid a debate among Kyiv’s allies over whether to provide fighter jets for its war against Russia, after United States President Joe Biden ruled out giving F-16s.
Ukraine planned to push for Western fourth-generation fighters like F-16s after securing supplies of main battle tanks last week, an adviser to Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Friday.
Asked by reporters at the White House on Monday if the US would provide F-16s, Mr Biden said: “No.”
But France and Poland appear to be willing to entertain any such request from Ukraine, with Mr Macron telling reporters in The Hague on Monday that “by definition, nothing is excluded” when it comes to military assistance.
In remarks carried on French television before Mr Biden spoke in Washington, Mr Macron stressed that any such move would depend on several factors, including the need to avoid escalation and assurances that the aircraft would not “touch Russian soil”.
He said Mr Reznikov would also meet his French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu in Paris on Tuesday.
In Poland on Monday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also did not rule out a possible supply of F-16s to neighbouring Ukraine, in response to a question from a reporter before Mr Biden spoke.
Mr Morawiecki said in remarks posted on his website that any such transfer would take place “in complete coordination” with Nato countries.
Mr Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukraine President’s Office, noted “positive signals” from Poland and said France “does not exclude” such a move in separate posts on his Telegram channel.
Mr Biden’s comment came shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia had begun exacting its revenge for Ukraine’s resistance to its invasion with relentless attacks in the east. Mr Zelensky has warned for weeks that Moscow aims to step up its assault after about two months of virtual stalemate on the front line that stretches across the south and east.
Ukraine won a huge boost last week when Germany and the US announced plans to provide heavy tanks, ending weeks of diplomatic deadlock on the issue.
While there was no sign of a broader new Russian offensive, the administrator of Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk province, Mr Denis Pushilin, said Russian troops had secured a foothold in Vuhledar, a coal-mining town whose ruins have been a Ukrainian bastion since the outset of the war.
Mr Pushilin said that despite “huge losses”, Ukrainian forces were consolidating positions in industrial facilities.
Mr Pushilin said Ukrainian forces were continuing to throw reinforcements at Bakhmut, Maryinka and Vuhledar, three towns running from north to south, just west of Donetsk city.
Russian state news agency Tass quoted him as saying that Russian forces were making advances there, but “not clear-cut, that is, here, there is a battle for literally every metre”.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Ukraine still controlled Maryinka and Vuhledar, where Russian attacks were less intense on Monday.
Mr Pushilin’s adviser, Mr Yan Gagin, said fighters from Russian mercenary force Wagner had taken partial control of a supply road leading to Bakhmut, a city that has been Moscow’s focus for months.
A day earlier, the head of Wagner said his fighters had secured Blahodatne, a village just north of Bakhmut.
Kyiv said it had repelled assaults on Blahodatne and Vuhledar, and Reuters could not independently verify the situations there. But the locations of the reported fighting indicated clear, though gradual, Russian gains.
In central Zaporizhzhia region and in southern Kherson region, Russian forces shelled more than 40 settlements, Ukraine’s General Staff said. Targets included the city of Kherson, where there were casualties.
The Russians also launched four rocket attacks on Ochakiv in southern Mykolaiv, the army said, on the day that Mr Zelensky met the Danish prime minister in Mykolaiv city, to the north-east.
Mr Zelensky is urging the West to hasten delivery of its promised weapons so Ukraine can go on the offensive, but most of the hundreds of tanks pledged by Western countries are months away from delivery.
British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said the 14 Challenger tanks donated by Britain would be on the front line around April or May, without giving an exact timetable.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Western countries supplying arms leads “to Nato countries more and more becoming directly involved in the conflict – but it does not have the potential to change the course of events and will not do so”.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War think-tank said “the West’s failure to provide the necessary material” in 2022 was the main reason Kyiv’s advances had halted since November. The researchers said in a report that Ukraine could still recapture territory once the promised weapons arrive.
The Belarusian Defence Ministry said on Tuesday that Russia and Belarus had started a week-long session of staff training in preparation for joint drills in Russia in September.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow justifies as necessary to protect itself from its neighbour’s ties with the West, has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes. REUTERS