© Reuters. Ukrainian servicemen stand atop a tank, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, near the bombed-out eastern city of Bakhmut, in the eastern Donetsk region, Ukraine, April 2, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura
By Pavel Polityuk
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said during a trip to Warsaw on Wednesday that Poland would help form a coalition of Western powers to supply warplanes to Kyiv, adding that Ukrainian troops were still fighting for Bakhmut in the east but could withdraw if they risked being cut off.
Neighbouring Poland is a close ally of Ukraine and helped galvanise support in the West to supply main battle tanks to Kyiv. During Zelenskiy’s visit, Poland announced it would send 10 more MiG fighter jets on top of four provided earlier.
“Just as your (Polish) leadership proved itself in the tank coalition, I believe that it will manifest itself in the planes coalition,” Zelenskiy said in a speech on a square in Warsaw.
Earlier in the day, Zelenskiy said Ukrainian troops faced a really difficult situation in Bakhmut and the military would take “corresponding” decisions to protect them if they risk being encircled by Russian invasion forces.
Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut sometimes advanced a little only to be knocked back, Zelenskiy said, but remained inside the city.
“We are in Bakhmut and the enemy does not control it,” Zelenskiy said.
Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s mainly Russian-occupied Donetsk province, has proven one of the bloodiest and longest battles of Russia’s invasion, now in its 14th month. Kyiv’s forces have held out against a Russian onslaught with heavy losses on both sides and the city, a mining and transport hub, reduced to ruin after months of street fighting and bombardment.
“For me, the most important is not to lose our soldiers and of course if there is a moment of even hotter events and the danger we could lose our personnel because of encirclement – of course the corresponding correct decisions will be taken by generals there,” Zelenskiy said.
He appeared to be referring to the idea of withdrawing.
However, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said later in that the situation at the front was “completely under control” despite repeated Russian attempts to take Bakhmut and other cities in the east.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
Ukrainian military commanders have stressed the importance of holding Bakhmut and other cities and inflicting losses on Russian troops before an anticipated counter-offensive against them in the coming weeks or months.
Mercenaries from the Wagner group – who have spearheaded the assault on Bakhmut – said at the weekend they had captured the city centre, a claim dismissed by Kyiv.
The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said the Wagner fighters had made advances in Bakhmut and were likely to continue trying to consolidate control of the city centre and push westward through dense urban neighbourhoods.
PLAYING THE CHINA CARD
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, was visiting China after he and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed they would try to engage Beijing to hasten the end of the Russian assault on Ukraine.
China has called for a comprehensive ceasefire and described its position on the conflict as “impartial”, even though the Chinese and Russian presidents announced a “no limits” partnership shortly before the invasion.
Both Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, due in Beijing shortly after him, have said they want to persuade China to use its influence over Russia to bring peace in Ukraine, or to at least deter Beijing from directly supporting Moscow in the conflict.
The U.S. and NATO have said China was considering sending arms to Russia, which Beijing has denied.
‘SHOULDER TO SHOULDER’
Poland has played a big role in persuading Western allies to supply battle tanks and other heavy weapons to Ukraine, which helped Kyiv stem and sometimes reverse Russian advances so far.
“You have stood shoulder to shoulder with us, and we are grateful for it,” Zelenskiy said after Polish President Andrzej Duda presented him with Poland’s highest award, the Order of the White Eagle.
Duda said Warsaw was also working to secure additional security guarantees for Ukraine at a NATO summit to be held in the Lithuania in July.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told state TV that Moscow needed to maintain relations with Washington even though American supplies of weapons to Ukraine meant “we are really in a hot phase of the war”.
In addition to MiG-29s, Kyiv has also pressed NATO for F-16 jet fighters but Duda’s foreign policy adviser, Marcin Przydacz, said Poland would not decide soon on whether to send any.