President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to western nations to take “meaningful steps” to bolster Ukraine’s military campaign against Russia ahead of a NATO summit aimed at deepening the alliance’s support for Kyiv.
As the war in his country entered its second month, the Ukrainian leader urged the world to provide heavy military equipment to aid his nation’s “struggle for life” in the face of a Russian invasion that has caused widespread destruction, forced more than 10mn people from their homes and left another 12mn trapped in areas ravaged by conflict.
“Freedom must be armed,” Zelensky said in an online address, delivered in Ukrainian, Russian and English. “The Ukrainian sky has not been made safe from Russian missiles and bombs. We have not received aircraft and modern anti-missile weapons. We have not received tanks, anti-ship equipment. ”
The Ukrainian leader, who has launched scathing attacks on some western nations for their economic links to Russia, said that the response from the gathering of NATO members in Brussels on Thursday would show “who is a friend, who is a partner, and who betrayed us for money ”.
US President Joe Biden arrived in the Belgian capital on Wednesday night for the first in-person meeting of the leaders of the Western military alliance since Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine sent shockwaves through the western world and triggered a dramatic overhaul of Europe’s political and economic links with Moscow.
Biden, who will also attend meetings with EU and G7 allies, will rally them to provide increased support for Kyiv and inflict greater pain on the Russian economy by unleashing further sanctions on top of existing measures targeting the country’s central bank, key financial institutions, top officials and oligarchs.
In a sign of western concern that Putin could seek to escalate the war by using weapons of mass destruction, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on the eve of the summit that member states were preparing to send equipment to Ukraine to defend against chemical and nuclear arms.
Speaking on Thursday morning, he warned that a chemical weapons attack in Ukraine could also lead to chemical agents spreading into NATO allied countries, adding: “Any use of chemical weapons would fundamentally change the nature of the conflict. It will have widespread and severe consequences. ”
The British government will on Thursday unveil a £ 25mn financial package for the Ukrainian armed forces alongside 6,000 “defensive” missiles.
The alliance is also expected to agree to a plan to strengthen its eastern flank by setting up four battle groups of NATO troops in Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania, joining deployments aimed at determining potential Russian aggression in Poland and the Baltic states.
Member states have made clear, however, that they are unwilling to engage in a direct military confrontation with Russia and have rejected pleas from Zelensky, which he repeated again ahead of Thursday’s summit, to enforce a no-fly zone over his country.
A promise by Biden to supply Ukraine with Soviet-era long-range missile systems has become bogged down in difficulties with sourcing and moving the equipment.
Some Ukrainian cities, especially the besieged port city of Mariupol, have suffered from relentless and indiscriminate bombardment, which the US on Wednesday formally described as a war crime.
Ahead of Thursday’s meetings, the Ukrainian army said that Russian aircraft “continue to be active, striking from the air” and that the main targets were “military and civilian infrastructure” in Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv.
Roman Kostenko, secretary of the parliamentary committee on national security, defense and intelligence, described the situation as “stable but tense”.
Russian and Ukrainian military claims cannot be independently verified.
Western defense officials said that Ukrainian forces had gained some momentum around Kyiv and had successfully repelled Russian forces in some areas.
Ukrainian troops had pushed back the Russian offensive to about 55km east and north-east from Kyiv, after Moscow’s troops had reached within 30km of the city in recent days, a US defense official said.
Instead, the official said, Russia was prioritizing efforts in eastern Ukraine, particularly near Luhansk and Donetsk, which it was seeking to cut off to pin down Ukrainian forces in that area.
Nato estimates that between 7,000 and 15,000 Russian troops have been killed in the invasion of Ukraine, a senior military official at the alliance said, citing intelligence from Ukraine, Russia and open sources. Moscow has officially confirmed 498 deaths – a figure released at the start of March and not updated since.
The UK ministry of defense said on Thursday that Russia was likely to seek to mobilize reserves and conscripts, as well as private military contractors and foreign mercenaries, to replace its “considerable losses”.
“It is unclear how these groups will integrate into the Russian ground forces in Ukraine and the impact this will have on combat effectiveness,” he said.