US Announces Biden Visit To Poland After Russian Onslaught On Ukraine
As the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approaches, Russia is facing a “difficult choice,” Britain’s Defense Ministry said Saturday in its daily intelligence report.
With the Wagner Group announcing earlier this week that is has halted its prisoner recruitment scheme that provided forces for Russia in Ukraine, the British ministry said Russia is now facing a “difficult choice.” The ministry said Russia must now decide whether it will continue “to deplete its forces, scale back objectives, or conduct a further form of mobilization.”
The ministry also said the prisoners’ enthusiasm for service in Ukraine likely dwindled as the reality of the battles in Ukraine “filtered through to inmates.”
Another possible factor in the halting of the Wagner Group’s effort is likely the “increasingly direct rivalry between the Russian Ministry of Defense and Wagner.”
The White House announced on Friday that President Joe Biden will travel to Poland on February 20 to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda and Eastern European allies.
Coming just before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Biden’s visit “will make it very clear that the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” said John Kirby, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council.
The announcement came after Russia’s massive strikes Friday morning across Ukraine. Heavy shelling targeted civilians and civilian infrastructure and caused new power outages. According to VOA’s Anna Chernikova, who is in Kyiv, Ukraine’s energy minister, Herman Halushchenko, confirmed there were strikes at thermal and hydro-generation facilities, as well as at high-voltage infrastructure in six regions.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Russia’s massive strikes “a challenge to NATO, collective security. This is terror that can and must be stopped,” he said in a video address.
The most difficult situations are in the Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv and Khmelnytskyi regions. Ukraine’s air defense downed 61 of the 71 Russian missiles launched, according to the Ukrainian Air Force. “Unfortunately, there were hits. Unfortunately, there are victims,” Zelenskyy said.
In a briefing Friday, United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said that in Kharkiv alone, some 150,000 households and businesses have been reported to be without electricity.
In Ocheretyne, a community in the Donetsk region 18 kilometers from the front line, the U.N. has assisted with providing medical supplies, solar lamps, hygiene kits, bedding and other goods.
Some 3,600 people, including 200 children, remaining in the area have not had gas since February of last year, and access to water and electricity, as in many parts of Ukraine, remains unstable, he added.
“The lack of transport is also impacting access to health services,” Dujarric said. He cited the U.N. secretary-general saying that “any attacks against critical civilian infrastructure are unacceptable and must cease immediately.”
The Ukrainian president said during the heavy air strikes Friday, several Russian missiles flew through the airspace of Moldova and Romania.
“Another proof that terror does not know and will never know any borders,” he said. “Another proof that the protection of Ukraine is the protection of the whole of Europe and the world, of every country that simply wants to live.”
Moldova air space
Moldova acknowledged that Russian missiles had flown through its air space and summoned Moscow’s ambassador to complain.
In a published statement, Romania’s Defense Ministry denied Ukrainian reports that a missile had also flown through Romanian air space, but acknowledged the missile did enter Moldova’s airspace, reportedly passing just 35 kilometers beyond the Romanian border on its way to Ukraine.
During a press conference, Ukraine’s Air Force spokesman Yurii Ihnat said Ukrainian radar systems recorded two Russian Kalibr cruise missiles flying into Romanian and Moldovan airspace during Russia’s 14th mass missile attack on Ukraine.
Reacting to Ukraine’s claims, U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel said Friday there’s no indication of a direct military threat by Russia to Moldova or Romania at this time.
Speaking to European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday, Zelenskyy warned that his country has intercepted plans by Russian secret services to destroy Moldova, and Moldovan intelligence confirmed the claim.
His warnings were echoed by a member of the Moldovan parliament, Sinchevici Eugeniu, who told VOA’s Eastern European Division Chief Myroslava Gongadze the sudden change in Moldovan government Friday reflects the need for fresh defense measures in Moldova.
“We need to put a big focus on security in our government, which was one of the factors that motivated us to change the government,” Eugeniu said, pointing to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s recent comments on state-owned the Russian news network TASS that the actions of Western nations could soon turn Moldova into the “next Ukraine.”
The attacks on Ukraine Friday renewed calls for more weapons’ aid to Ukraine. European Council President Charles Michel said the missile barrage constituted war crimes.
“The EU and its member states stand by Ukraine and all Ukrainians. And will further speed up the provision of military equipment, including air defense,” he tweeted.
Western countries that have provided Ukraine with arms have so far refused to send fighter jets or long-range weapons capable of striking deep inside Russia. In an interview with Ani Chkhikvadze of VOA’s Georgian Service, senior Zelenskyy adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said negotiations are underway “not only on long-range weapons but also about aviation and not only for fighter jets.”
Ukraine needs attack aircraft to provide support for armored vehicles on the ground, Podolyak added.
“The attack aircraft that can just destroy defensive echelons of the Russian Federation with fire and then [help] our armored vehicles and manpower do the work, [on the ground],” Podolyak said, adding that these discussions may take weeks.
Slovakian Prime Minister Eduard Heger announced Friday that Slovakia can start talks on delivering MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. Zelenskyy said he heard from several European Union leaders at the summit that they were ready to provide aircraft, hinting at what would be one of the biggest shifts yet in Western support for Ukraine.
“Our MIGs can save innocent lives in Ukraine,” Heger said.
In an interview with VOA on Friday, John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said Washington has “prioritized air defense whether it’s short-, medium- or long-range” and it will continue to do so.
Kirby did not answer, though, whether the U.S. will provide fighter jets to Ukraine.
“I am not going to get ahead of decisions that haven’t been made yet. We continue to evolve our contributions as the war evolves itself,” he said, noting the U.S. is “in lockstep, talking to the Ukrainians almost every day.”
Ukraine has been promised tanks from the U.S., Germany and other NATO allies, but it does not yet have enough tanks to launch a counteroffensive against Russia.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Friday that Russian forces “have likely made tactical gains” in two key locations in Ukraine — on the northern outskirts of the Donbas town of Bakhmut and around the western edge of the town of Vuhledar.
The ministry said that on the northern outskirts of Bakhmut, Wagner Group forces have pushed 2 to 3 kilometers farther west, controlling the area near the main route to town.
The report said Russia likely has suffered heavy casualties, however, because of the “inexperienced units” deployed there. “Russian troops likely fled and abandoned at least 30 mostly intact armored vehicles in a single incident after a failed assault,” the ministry said.
In a briefing Friday at U.S. the Center for a New American Security, Celeste Wallander, the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said Russia’s military overall “is a mixed picture.” She said as Russia continues to suffer losses in Ukraine, it is also learning both tactically, operationally, and somewhat strategically how to adapt. The U.S. is seeing Russia apply lessons learned from previous losses and failures in Ukraine.
“We’re seeing some of those play out in how Russia’s conducting, for example, the operations right now in Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine,” she said.
Wallander emphasized that Russia has “a deep bench of personnel” it can draw upon, and she said the Russian Federation “will remain a militarily capable adversary that we have to right size our plans, our operations and our capabilities to cope with.”
She expressed confidence that “Russia will not achieve its strategic or even its operational objectives, and we are confident that the Ukrainian armed forces are up to the task of defending its country.”
Contributors to this report include VOA Eastern Europe Bureau Chief Myroslava Gongadze in Kyiv, Ukraine; VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin in Washington; VOA United Nations Correspondent Margaret Besheer in New York; and Ani Chkhikvadze of VOA’s Georgian Service.