As Biden signs $40 billion aid package for Ukraine, calls for ceasefire grow


President Biden signed a new $40 billion package in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine on Saturday as the country braced itself for a prolonged war of attrition in the eastern regions, vowing it would not stop fighting until all Russian troops were expelled.

But on Saturday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged that the conflict would eventually require a diplomatic solution, raising questions about what exactly that would mean.

Mr Zelensky said Russia had thwarted a first attempt to end the war through dialogue and the conflict was now “very difficult”. On the third anniversary of his inauguration as president, he said the war “will be bloody” but “the end will surely be in diplomacy”.

Despite a recent series of setbacks and shortages of manpower and equipment, Russia continued its military campaign in eastern Ukraine, and with its propaganda offensive at home, hours after it claimed complete control of the port city of Mariupol. what would be the most significant gain since the beginning of the war.

Russia said in a statement late Friday that its defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, had informed President Vladimir V. Putin of the “complete liberation” of the Mariupol steel plant where Ukrainian fighters had made their last stand in the city before settling in. recently surrendered. to dawn. Ukrainian officials have not confirmed the Russian claim.

The Ukrainian army, for its part, said it had repulsed 11 attacks in the past day in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces, known collectively as the Donbas region, and destroyed eight tanks and other Russian combat vehicles.

All in all, claimed Mr. Zelensky, Ukraine has “broken the backbone of the largest or one of the strongest armies in the world”.

The war is now entering its fourth month, and while Moscow first had to withdraw from outside the capital Kiev and more recently from the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, neither side is currently making more than incremental gains.

As the conflict draws closer to a stalemate and both sides in the Donbas region fight to gain the upper hand, calls for a ceasefire have grown louder, along with questions of what a victory would be, whether at least a suitable outcome, for Ukraine.

“A ceasefire must be reached as soon as possible,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi insisted on Thursday, opening a parliamentary debate on Italy’s role in aiding Ukraine. He added that “we need to bring Moscow to the negotiating table.”

German, French and Italian suggestions for a ceasefire have been angrily and even bitterly rejected by Kiev as selfish and ill-timed. Ukrainian officials say Russia is barely ready for serious peace talks and that despite significant losses in the Donbas and Mariupol, their troops have momentum in the war.

For now, some in Ukraine insist that the only result the country will achieve is to restore all the territory Russia had lost since 1991 when it gained independence from the Soviet Union. That would include both Donbas in its entirety and Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. But Mr. Zelensky has hinted that he would accept the status quo ante before the war.

Western diplomats insist this is a matter for Ukraine to decide. But their unanimity begins to crumble when it comes to details.

On Friday, at a conference in Warsaw, US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith reiterated the United States’ strong support for Ukraine. “In terms of the final state,” she added, “we think we will see Ukraine triumph, and we want them to protect their territorial integrity and their sovereignty.”

But she added another goal: “We want to see a strategic defeat of Russia. We want Russia to leave Ukraine.”

For Eastern European and Baltic leaders, a lasting peace settlement and an end to the conflict must mean a landslide military victory that heralds an end to Mr Putin’s presidency. Anything but his departure would only clear the way for the next war, they say. They are refusing suggestions from Berlin, Paris and Rome to lure Mr Putin back to the negotiating table.

“Peace cannot be the ultimate goal,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas recently told The New York Times. “I only see a solution as a military victory that could put an end to this once and for all, and also to punish the aggressor for what he has done.”

Otherwise, she said, “we’ll go back to where we started — you have a break of a year, two years, and then everything continues.”

“All these events should awaken us from our geopolitical slumber and cause us to cast off our delusions,” Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said at a conference in Warsaw on Thursday. “I hear there are attempts to somehow get Putin to save face in the international arena. But how can you save something that is totally deformed?”

“Russia can only be deterred by our unity, military capabilities and harsh sanctions,” he added. “Not through phone calls and conversations with Putin.”

In a diplomatic salvo, Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a list of 963 people who would be banned from entering Russia for life, including Mr Biden, actor Morgan Freeman and New York Times columnist Bret Stephens. The ministry described his action as “necessary” retaliation against the “hostile actions” of the United States.

Against the backdrop of an unfolding debate over what a final settlement might look like, Russian and Ukrainian forces dug into the battlefield, aware that any military victory would turn into a diplomatic advantage.

The Ukrainian army said on Saturday that Russia was clearing the port of Mariupol in a bid to get it up and running again. Re-opening the port would tighten Moscow’s control over the parts of southern and eastern Ukraine it controls, as well as increase its economic influence over the Black Sea, where its navy is dominant.

And Russian troops are holed up in areas outside the city of Kharkov, posing a formidable obstacle to any Ukrainian attempt to exercise their advantage in that area.

The Russian army on Saturday prepared to once again cross a pontoon of an eastern Ukrainian river that forms a formidable barrier to its targets in the region, the Ukrainian army said, despite suffering one of the war’s most deadly battles in an earlier attempt this month .

Russian forces were once again deploying bridging equipment near the Seversky Donets River, the Ukrainian military said in its regularly published morning assessment of the war. The stream’s winding path cuts through the heart of the region where Russian troops battle Ukrainian defenders – around the cities of Izium, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Sievierodonetsk – posing major obstacles to Moscow’s offensive in eastern Ukraine.

“The enemy has not ceased offensive actions in the Eastern Zone of Operations with the aim of gaining full control over the territory of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” the assessment said.

The Ukrainian military has blown up bridges to force the Russians to build pontoon bridges, a tactic that has proven effective — and costly to the Russian military. Armed forces are particularly vulnerable to artillery strikes because they collect soldiers, armored vehicles, and equipment during a crossing attempt.

In the battle for control of the Donbas region, Russian forces have attempted several pontoon crossings of the Seversky Donets, which is seen as an important tactical step towards the goal of capturing a bag of Ukrainian troops in and around the city of Sievierodonetsk. surround.

On May 11, Ukrainian artillery struck a pontoon crossing with devastating effect, destroying the bridge, burning armored vehicles on both riverbanks and killing more than 400 soldiers, according to estimates by Western military analysts. The British Ministry of Defense has issued statements confirming Ukraine’s accounts, based on satellite images and aerial photos from drones posted online of the attack.

Whatever the ultimate outcome of the war, no one expects it to end any time soon as the leader of every nation should be able to claim some kind of victory, especially Mr. Zelensky.

“For Zelensky, there is no other way forward than to keep fighting and recapture the lost territory,” said Andrew A. Michta, a German-based foreign policy and defense analyst. “The moment he agrees to a compromise, he loses his political credibility, given the blood paid. The Ukrainians cannot make a deal to stop the fighting, so this will be a long, protracted war.”

Steven Erlanger reported from Brussels, Andrew E. Kramer from Dnipro, Ukraine, and Katrin Bennhold from Berlin. Anton Trojanovskic contributed reporting from Istanbul.

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