Russia strikes in Eastern Ukraine, the West promises new weapons to Kyiv

TORETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia struck eastern Ukraine Tuesday as the U.S. defense secretary vowed to “keep moving heaven and earth” to provide Kyiv with the weapons it needs to repel a new offensive, even as Moscow warned that such support could lead to an expansion of the war.

Two months into the devastating conflict, Western weapons have already helped Ukraine stop a Russian invasion, but its leaders have said they urgently need more support.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said more help would be forthcoming as he called a meeting of officials from about 40 countries at US Ramstein Air Base in Germany to hand over more weapons. Germany has announced that it has cleared the way for the supply of anti-aircraft guns to Ukraine.

“This gathering reflects a galvanized world,” Austin said in his opening remarks. He added that he would like officials to leave the meeting “with a common and transparent understanding of Ukraine’s short-term security requirements because we are going to keep moving heaven and earth so that we can meet them.”

After a fierce defense by Ukrainian forces thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital at the start of the war, Moscow now says its focus is on the Donbass, a predominantly Russian-speaking industrial region in eastern Ukraine that has been engulfed in separatist conflict since 2014.

The current war has resulted in devastation around Ukraine, killing thousands of civilians and forcing millions to flee the country. This led to rising food and energy prices worldwide and turned the balance of security in post-Cold War Europe upside down.

In the small town of Toretsk in the Donbass, residents struggle to survive, collecting rainwater for cleaning and washing dishes and fervently hoping for an end to hostilities.

“It’s bad. Very bad. Hopeless,” Andrey Cheromushkin said. “You feel so helpless that you don’t know what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. Because if you want to do something, you need money and now there is no money.

In its latest assessment of the fighting, the British Ministry of Defense described the Russian advance and heavy fighting in the Donbass, with one city, Kremennaya, reportedly falling after several days of street fighting.

Authorities said Tuesday that in Mariupol, a besieged city crucial to the fight for the east, Russian troops had carried out 35 airstrikes on the Azovstal steel plant in the past 24 hours. The plant is the last known Ukrainian militant redoubt in the city, officials said, and some of the civilians who had taken refuge there were injured in the strikes.

“Russia has stepped up its strikes dramatically over the past 24 hours and is using heavy bunker bombs,” Piotr Andryushchenko, an adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, told The Associated Press by phone. “The number of wounded will become clear as soon as the rubble is cleared.”

He also accused Russian forces of shelling a route they had proposed as an escape corridor from the steel plant and its labyrinth of tunnels and bunkers.

Outside Mariupol, local authorities said at least nine people were killed and several more injured in shelling of Russian cities in eastern and southern Ukraine. Pavel Kirilenko, the governor of the Donetsk region, said on messaging app Telegram that Russian forces “continue to deliberately fire on civilians and destroy critical infrastructure.”

The Ukrainian General Staff also said that Russian forces had shelled Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city outside the Donbass, but had come under significant attack as Moscow seeks full control of the region. Ukrainian forces struck back in the Kherson region in the south.

In the midst of a potentially pivotal battle in the east, the US and its NATO allies are scrambling to get artillery and other heavy weapons into the area in time to make a difference.

German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said that her country’s government on Monday decided to allow the supply of Gepard self-propelled armored anti-aircraft guns to Ukraine, but she did not provide details. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is facing mounting pressure, including from his ruling coalition, to approve the shipment of heavy weapons such as tanks and other armored vehicles to Ukraine.

Austin, the US secretary of defense, said Tuesday that more than 30 allies and partners have joined the US in sending security assistance to Ukraine, and more than $5 billion worth of equipment has been committed.

Amid talk of arms supplies, diplomatic efforts to end hostilities continued. UN Secretary-General António Guterres met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday and again called for a ceasefire. Later, the UN head is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But Lavrov noted the West’s promises of weapons to Ukraine and said that “if this continues, then, of course, the negotiations are unlikely to have any result, but I repeat once again that we are committed to a negotiated solution.”

A day earlier, Lavrov warned that Western weapons “would be a legitimate target” and accused NATO of “adding fuel to the fire” with its support for Ukraine, according to a transcript of his televised speech on the Foreign Ministry’s website.

Lavrov also warned against provoking World War III and said the threat of nuclear conflict “should not be underestimated.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin has cited NATO expansion and the risk that Kyiv could join the alliance as reasons for his invasion.

British Armed Forces Secretary James Hippie dismissed Lavrov’s allegations of NATO aggression as “complete nonsense,” and Pentagon spokesman John Kirby called the Russian minister’s reference to the nuclear conflict unconstructive.

“A nuclear war cannot be won and should not be fought,” Kirby told CNN during an interview from Germany, where he traveled with Austin. “Such rhetoric is clearly not needed in the current scenario. It is required that Mr. Putin put an end to this war.”

The Russian invasion has worried several countries in Eastern Europe who fear they could be next. These fears have intensified in Moldova after a Russian commander said security in southern Ukraine would pave the way to the Moldovan separatist region of Transnistria. On Tuesday, police said the blasts shot down two powerful radio antennas at a facility near the border with Ukraine, the second series of blasts in the region in days.

Washington has previously warned that Russian forces could launch “false flag” operations to create a pretext for invading other countries. Russian officials denied such accusations.

Elsewhere, International Atomic Energy Agency director general Rafael Mariano Grossi visited the Chernobyl nuclear plant to deliver equipment, conduct a radiological assessment and restore security controls after tanks and troops blasted heavily contaminated soil there in the early hours of the Russian invasion in February. His visit is timed to coincide with the anniversary of the nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, the worst nuclear accident in the world.

In the largest ground conflict since World War II, Britain said it estimated that 15,000 Russian troops had been killed since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, far exceeding the 1,351 deaths acknowledged by Moscow. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said 25% of Russian combat units sent to Ukraine are “out of action.”

Ukrainian officials said between 2,500 and 3,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed as of mid-April.

The West hopes that the increase in arms supplies will help the remaining fighter jets fend off the Russian invasion.

Opening the meeting in Germany, Austin tried to reassure Kyiv: “We know, and you should know, that we all support you, and that’s why we are here today – to strengthen the arsenal of Ukrainian democracy.”
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Gambrell reported from Lvov, Ukraine. Associated Press journalist Yuri Karmanov in Lvov, David Caton in Kyiv, Alexander Stashevsky in Chernobyl, Mstislav Chernov in Kharkiv, and AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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