Ukraine’s allies will agree to provide fighter aircraft to battle Russian forces, the defence minister said, despite recent comments by Western leaders that warplanes would not be forthcoming.
Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov also told a news conference on Sunday that Russia will launch a major offensive in the coming weeks, but Ukraine has the soldiers and resources to repel such an attack.
Ukraine’s military will halt the operation despite tanks and other weapon systems from the West not arriving in time, he said.
“There will be planes, too,” Reznikov predicted. “The question is just what kind exactly … Consider that this mission is already completed.”
So far Ukraine has won support from Baltic nations and Poland in its quest to obtain Western fighter jets. But several Western leaders have expressed concern that providing warplanes could provoke the Kremlin and draw their countries deeper into the conflict, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and wreaked massive destruction.
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Kyiv says such jets are essential to challenging Russia’s air superiority and ensuring success in a Russian offensive that Reznikov predicted could begin around the war’s one-year anniversary, February 24.
“Not all Western weapons will arrive by then, but we have the resources and reserves to help stabilise and sustain the offensive,” Reznikov told reporters.
Since the war began, Western officials have balked at some of Ukraine’s requests, such as for longer-range missiles and tanks, only to agree later. The warplanes are the latest example.
‘De facto NATO country’
Ukraine will not use longer-range weapons pledged by the United States to hit Russian territory and will only target Russian units in occupied Ukrainian territory, Reznikov said.
The US confirmed on Friday that a new rocket doubling Ukraine’s strike range was included in a $2.2bn US military aid package to help Kyiv fight back Russian forces.
“We always tell our partners officially that we will not use weapons supplied by foreign partners to fire on Russian territory. We only fire on Russian units on temporarily occupied Ukrainian territory,” he said.
German-made tanks are on the way to Ukraine. Reznikov said his forces would begin training on Leopard 2 tanks in Europe on Monday, before their delivery to Ukraine. So far, Canada, Poland, Germany, Britain and the United States have announced they will supply tanks to Ukraine.
The Kremlin has said Western countries’ supply of increasingly sophisticated weapons will only prolong the conflict, and it has characterised NATO as a direct participant in the war.
Reznikov, commenting on the supply of Western weapons and the state of the Ukrainian army, took the rhetoric further on Sunday, telling reporters: “I absolutely boldly claim that we have become a de facto NATO country. We only have a de jure part left.”
Ukraine has applied to join NATO, as have two of Russia’s other neighbours, Finland and Sweden.
‘Fighting to the last’
Fighting is raging in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region as Russia intensifies pressure before the first anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
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“Things are very difficult in Donetsk region – fierce battles,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address. “But however difficult it is and however much pressure there is, we must endure … We have no alternative to defending ourselves and winning.”
Russia, he said, was applying increased pressure to “make up for its defeats last year. We see that on various sectors of the front and also pressure in terms of information.”
Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said five civilians were wounded in rocket attacks in the city of Druzhkivka and the town of Avdiivka and its outskirts were also fired on.
Heavy fighting was ongoing in Bakhmut. The head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said the Ukrainian army was not retreating and fighting raged on in northern parts of the eastern city.
“Fierce battles are going on for every street, every house, every stairwell,” Prigozhin said in a statement. “The Ukrainian armed forces are fighting to the last.”
Kharkiv regional Governor Oleh Syniehubov said four people were injured when a Russian S-300 missile fell near an apartment block in Kharkiv city, and another was hurt when a missile hit a university building.