Zelenskyy warns allies delay costly

‘Artificial deficit’ in Ukrainian arms is aiding Russia, he tells conference

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) is taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) is taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)


MUNICH -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned allies Saturday that an "artificial deficit" of arms for his country risks giving Russia breathing space, highlighting the need for artillery and long-range weapons after his military chief said he was withdrawing troops from the eastern city of Avdiivka.

Zelenskyy spoke to the Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of security and foreign policy officials. Ukraine is back on the defensive against Russia in the nearly 2-year-old war, hindered by low ammunition supplies and a shortage of personnel.

"Ukrainians have proven that we can force Russia to retreat," he said. "We can get our land back, and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin can lose, and this has already happened more than once on the battlefield."

"Our actions are limited only by ... our strength," he added, pointing to the situation in Avdiivka. Ukrainian commander Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi said early Saturday that he was withdrawing troops from the city, where outnumbered Ukrainian defenders battled a Russian assault for four months, to avoid encirclement and save soldiers' lives.

Russia said later its forces took complete control Saturday of the city in eastern Ukraine.

"Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war," Zelenskyy said. "The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results."

The president said that the troop withdrawal was "a correct decision" and emphasized the priority of saving soldiers. He suggested that Russia has achieved little, adding that it has been attacking Avdiivka "with all the power that they had" since October and lost thousands of soldiers -- "that's what Russia has achieved. It's a depletion of their army."

"We're just waiting for weapons that we're short of," he added, pointing to a lack of long-range weapons. "That's why our weapon today is our soldiers, our people."

Speaking alongside European and other officials later Saturday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that "all of us need much, much more artillery ammunition" and stressed that production must be ramped up. He said that "drones became a real part of the game; they will solve some problems, but they will not replace artillery ammunition."

Zelenskyy on Friday went to Berlin and Paris, where he signed long-term bilateral security agreements with Germany and France, following a similar agreement with Britain last month.

Ukraine's European allies are appealing to the U.S. Congress to approve a package that includes aid for Ukraine -- $60 billion that would go largely to U.S. defense entities to manufacture missiles, munitions and other military hardware for the battlefields in Ukraine. The package faces resistance from House Republicans.

Asked whether it would be a good idea to invite former U.S. president and 2024 presidential hopeful Donald Trump to Kyiv, Zelenskyy replied: "I invited him publicly, but it depends on his wishes."

"If ... he will come, I'm ready even to go with him to the front line," he added.

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said after meeting Zelenskyy later Saturday in Munich that "it is in the strategic interest of the United States to continue our support."

"History shows us: If we allow an aggressor like Putin to take land with impunity, they keep going. The other would-be aggressors then become emboldened," Harris said. She added that "we must be unwavering and we cannot play political games."

Standing next to Harris, Zelenskyy told reporters that the aid package stuck in Congress "is vital." It would provide a step forward for Ukraine, and "moving forward is much, much better than stagnation on the battlefield," he said, stressing that Kyiv is counting on the U.S. to remain a "strategic partner."

Also at the conference, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Congress' delay has meant the flow of U.S. weapons and ammunition dropped, with a direct impact on the front line.

"Every week we wait means that there will be more people killed on the front line in Ukraine," he said.

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, whose country directly borders Russia, pointed to the history of the 1930s.

"If America isolates itself, it eventually is going to cost you more," she said, warning that if "aggression pays off somewhere, it serves as an invitation to use it elsewhere, jeopardizing global security."

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose country is Ukraine's second-biggest military supplier after the U.S., renewed his call for other European countries to step up with more deliveries, and pointed to America's military aid since the war began.

"A comparable effort must be the least that every European country also does," he said.

A CITY FALLS

Later Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry announced the capture of Avdiivka, where the outnumbered defenders had battled a Russian assault for four months.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told the Kremlin that Russian forces were working to clear final pockets of resistance at the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical Plant, officials said in a statement. Videos on social media Saturday appeared to show soldiers raising the Russian flag over one of the plant's buildings.

Putin sent a personal message of congratulations to his troops in the city, state news agency Tass reported. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described Avdiivka's capture as an "important victory."

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson called the withdrawal "the cost of Congressional inaction."

"The Ukrainians continue to fight bravely, but they are running low on supplies. It is critical that the House approve additional Ukraine funding without delay so that we can provide Ukraine with the artillery ammunition and other critical equipment they need to defend their country," she said.

In a short statement posted on Facebook, Ukrainian commander Syrskyi said his troops were moving to "more favorable lines."

"Our soldiers performed their military duty with dignity, did everything possible to destroy the best Russian military units, inflicted significant losses on the enemy in terms of manpower and equipment.

"We are taking measures to stabilize the situation and maintain our positions," the statement read.

Heavily fortified with a web of tunnels and concrete fortifications, Avdiivka lies in the northern suburbs of Donetsk, a city in a region of the same name that Russian forces partially occupy.

Fewer than 1,000 people remain in the city, according to the Donetsk regional governor, Vadym Filashkin. The city, with a prewar population of about 31,000, is today a bombed-out shell of what it once was.

Aerial footage of Avdiivka obtained by The Associated Press in December showed an apocalyptic scene and hinted at Russia's staggering losses, with the bodies of about 150 soldiers -- most wearing Russian uniforms -- lying scattered along tree lines where they sought cover.

However, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said Thursday that taking Avdiivka would be more of a symbolic win for the Kremlin and would not bring significant changes to the 930-mile front line that has barely budged in recent months.

"The potential Russian capture of Avdiivka would not be operationally significant and would likely only offer the Kremlin immediate informational and political victories," the institute said in an assessment.

"Russian forces would be highly unlikely to make rapid operationally significant advances from Avdiivka if they captured the settlement, and the potential Russian capture of Avdiivka at most would set conditions for further limited tactical gains."

  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris pose at the end of a joint press conference at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, Germany, Saturday Feb. 17, 2024. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool via AP)
 
 
  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gestures during a meeting with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) is taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 18, 2024. (Wolfgang Rattay/Pool Photo via AP)
 
 
  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, right, meet for talks at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, Germany, Saturday Feb. 17, 2024. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool via AP)
 
 
  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) is taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
 
 
  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) is taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
 
 
  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a speech at the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich, Germany, Saturday, Feb. 17, 2024. The 60th Munich Security Conference (MSC) is taking place from Feb. 16 to Feb. 18, 2024. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)
 
 
  photo  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris hold a joint press conference at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, Germany, Saturday Feb. 17, 2024. (Tobias Schwarz/Pool via AP)
 
 


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