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EU allies vow more support for Ukraine at security conference as Putin hosts Lukashenko

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier warned against Belarus joining the war.

EUROPEAN LEADERS HAVE vowed to intensify support for Ukraine as it battles to repel Russia, with France’s president underlining at a major security conference that the time was not ripe for talks with Moscow.

Days ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia sending its forces into Ukraine, Moscow chalked up a small gain in its grinding offensive.

The head of Russian mercenary group Wagner claimed the capture of a village near Bakhmut – the eastern city that is the scene of the longest and bloodiest battle of Moscow’s offensive.

White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby today acknowledged Russia had made some “incremental gains in and around Bakhmut”. But the city was “of no real strategic value”, he said.

“We estimate now that Wagner has suffered more than 30,000 casualties, including approximately 9,000 killed in action” he added, with half of the dead killed since mid-December.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy insisted that lives were at stake as he opened the Munich Security Conference with an impassioned plea for allies to speed up support.

“We need speed – speed of our agreements, speed of our delivery… speed of decisions to limit Russian potential,” he said.

French President Emmanuel Macron joined in the call for allies to “intensify our support” for Ukraine to aid its forces in launching a counter-offensive.

“It is not the time for dialogue because we have a Russia which has chosen war, which has chosen to intensify the war, and which has chosen to go as far as committing war crimes and to attacking civilian infrastructure,” he said.

munich-security-conference Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy joins the Security Conference via video link. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

While insisting he did not want to see a drawn-out war, he said France was ready for a “prolonged conflict”.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz meanwhile insisted that German support was “designed to last”, and urged allies to speed up deliveries of heavy tanks promised to Ukraine.

Scholz tank turnaround

The conference in Munich is also being attended by US Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg.

Russian delegates including Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who was a regular attendee in the past, were not invited.

Scholz’s pleas for allies to step up deliveries of tanks underlined a recent reversal of his political fortunes.

Up until last month, he was facing accusations of foot-dragging over his reluctance to permit delivery of the German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine, despite increasing pressure from Kyiv.

Berlin finally agreed to allow the armaments, widely used in Europe, to be sent to Ukraine, and pledged to deliver some of the most modern ones from its military stocks.

Under German law, Berlin must give permission for other countries that use the tanks to re-export them.

However, it is now struggling to persuade allies to follow suit.

“Those who can send such battle tanks should really do so now,” Scholz told the conference, where he said he would be “intensively campaigning” to get allies to move on the issue.

‘Need Ukraine in EU’

Scholz and Macron later held talks with Polish President Andrzej Duda, with the German leader hailing the “good cooperation” between the trio in providing support for Ukraine.

In his address, Zelenskyy reiterated his ambitions for Ukraine to join the European Union and NATO. Ukraine was recently granted candidate status for the EU, although full membership is a long way off.

Speaking at a panel discussion, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki backed Ukraine’s drive to join the bloc and said the “normal route to accession” should be abandoned given Kyiv’s “extraordinary” position.

“We need Ukraine as part of the European Union and as part of NATO eventually as well. From our point of view the quicker the better,” he said.

munich-security-conference French President Emmanuel Macron, Polish President Andrzej Duda and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz make a joint statement on the sidelines of the Security Conference. DPA / PA Images DPA / PA Images / PA Images

US-China ties are also in focus at the gathering, with tensions sky-high after Washington shot down an alleged Chinese surveillance balloon over US territory.

With high-level US and Chinese delegations in town, there has been speculation of talks on the sidelines to ease tensions.

The huge white balloon from China was spotted over a series of secret nuclear weapons sites earlier this month, before being shot down just off the eastern US coast.

The incident prompted a diplomatic rift, with Blinken cancelling a rare China visit. Beijing, however, says the balloon was just a stray weather research craft.

Zelenskyy earlier said he would not give up any Ukrainian territory to end Russia’s war in his country.

In an interview with the BBC, he ruled out conceding Ukrainian territory in a potential peace deal with Russia, warning that giving up land would mean that Russia could “keep coming back”.


Zelenskyy also told the broadcaster that Belarus could join the war on side, but that Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko would be making a “big mistake” if he were to allow his nation enter the conflict. 

He said: “I hope [Belarus] won’t join [the war]. If it does, we will fight and we will survive.” 

Putin hosted neighbouring ally Belarus’s leader today for talks on expanding military and economic cooperation amid the fighting in Ukraine.

Russia used Belarusian territory to send troops into Ukraine nearly a year ago at the start of what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation.”

Russia has maintained troops and weapons in Belarus and the two countries have regularly conducted joint drills as part of their military alliance.

russian-president-vladimir-putin-right-and-belarusian-president-alexander-lukashenko-talk-during-their-meeting-at-the-novo-ogaryovo-state-residence-outside-moscow-russia-friday-feb-17-2023-v Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko talk during their meeting at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Speaking at the start of his talks with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, Putin proposed to discuss security issues, military cooperation and ways to further bolster economic ties.

Putin noted that Belarus has preserved Soviet-era industrial assets, adding that it offers good opportunities for joint manufacturing programmes.

“By pooling our efforts we will create synergy,” Mr Putin said. “It could be very efficient in some sectors and bring good results for both Belarus and Russia.”

Russia has been a major sponsor of Belarus’s Soviet-style economy, which relies on cheap Russian energy and loans.

The Kremlin also has offered staunch political support to Lukashenko, who has ruled Belarus with an iron hand for nearly three decades, helping him weather months of massive protests triggered by his re-election in an August 2020 vote that the opposition and the West denounced as rigged.

Last year, Lukashenko and Putin met 13 times.

Lukashenko has said Belarus would join the offensives in Ukraine “only if attacked” first by Kyiv’s army.

“I’m ready to fight together with the Russians from the territory of Belarus in one case only: if so much as one soldier from (Ukraine) comes to our territory with a gun to kill my people,” he told a rare press conference with foreign journalists in Minsk.

“This applies to our other neighbours,” Lukashenko said. “If they commit an aggression against Belarus, our response will be the most cruel. The most cruel.”

© AFP 2023, with reporting by Garreth MacNamee and the Press Association.

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