MADRID: The United States will reinforce Europe's defences with a wave of new military deployments, President Joe Biden announced Wednesday, as more Russian missiles smashed into Ukrainian cities. News of the US plan came as NATO leaders met to welcome Sweden and Finland as candidates to join the alliance, a double blow to Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his bid to redraw Europe's security map.
Biden boasted that the US announcement was exactly what Putin "didn't want" and Moscow reacted with predictable fury, denouncing Sweden and Finland's entry plan as "destabilising" and accusing an "aggressive" NATO of seeking to contain Russia. As Western leaders met in Madrid, in Ukraine officials complained that Russian missiles had hit civilian housing and businesses in and around the cities of Dnipro, Mykolaiv and Kharkiv, leaving at least seven dead and 14 wounded.
In Kremenchuk, the town where a Russian missile on Monday destroyed a shopping centre and-according to local officials-killed at least 18 civilians, clearing operations continued. A giant crane was working near the near the site of the impact and in the rubble-strewn parking area shopping trolleys piled with clothes and household goods lay abandoned. Western leaders have dubbed the Kremenchuk strike a war crime, and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has demanded that UN investigators visit. Russia said it targeted a Ukrainian depot storing Western arms.
'What needs to be done'
The Russian defence ministry said it had inflicted severe casualties on Ukrainian troops defending the town of Lysychansk, in the eastern Donbas region, and said the Kharkiv attack had hit Ukrainian command centres and a training base for foreign "mercenaries".
Moscow's February 24 invasion of pro-Western Ukraine triggered massive economic sanctions and a wave of support for Zelensky's government, including deliveries of advanced weapons. At this week's summit, two formerly neutral European countries-Sweden and Russia's north-western neighbour Finland-will be accepted as candidates to join NATO and Washington has announced that it will shift the headquarters of its 5th Army Corps to Poland.
An army brigade will rotate in and out of Romania, two squadrons of F-35 fighters will deploy to Britain, US air defence systems will be sent to Germany and Italy and the fleet of US Navy destroyers in Spain will grow from four to six. "That's exactly what he didn't want but exactly what needs to be done to guarantee security for Europe," Biden said, of Putin's efforts to roll back Western influence and re-establish influence or control over territories of the former Russian empire.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said NATO's expansion was "the opposite" of what Putin hoped for, and said that the leaders meeting at the summit would "state clearly that Russia poses a direct threat to our security". Moscow rose to the bait.
"The summit in Madrid confirms and consolidates this bloc's policy of aggressive containment of Russia," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, Russian news agencies reported. "We consider the expansion of the North Atlantic alliance to be a purely destabilising factor in international affairs."
The Swedish and Finnish leaders are to be welcomed as candidates for full membership in the alliance, after Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to lift his threat of a veto-the NATO ally accuses Stockholm and Helsinki of harbouring wanted Kurdish militants.
Turkey announced Wednesday that it would request the extradition of 33 alleged "terrorists" under the terms of the agreement signed Tuesday with Sweden and Finland to allow them to make membership bids. On Tuesday, Zelensky addressed the NATO summit via video link, asking for modern artillery and financial support. "We need much more modern systems, modern artillery," he said, calling financial support "no less important than aid with weapons".
NATO countries, which have already committed billions of dollars in military assistance to Kyiv, will agree a large military and economic support package to help them fend off the Russian invasion. A sanctions task force of leading Ukraine allies has frozen more than $330 billion in financial resources owned by Russia's elite and its central bank since Moscow's invasion, it announced Wednesday.
The Russian Elites, Proxies, and Oligarchs Task Force (REPO) said the allies had blocked $30 billion in assets belonging to Russian oligarchs and officials, and immobilised $300 billion owned by the Russian central bank. Norway said it would donate three multiple-launch rocket systems to Ukraine, following similar decisions made by Britain, Germany and the United States. Kyiv wants the long-range missile artillery to counter Russia's superiority in shorter range canons on Ukraine's eastern battlefield.
Earlier this week, at their summit in Germany, the G7 leaders of the world's richest democracies agreed to impose new sanctions targeting Moscow's defence industry, raising tariffs and banning gold imports from the country. But the Kremlin was unfazed, insisting that Ukrainian forces had to surrender to end the fighting. "The Ukrainian side can stop everything before the end of today," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. "An order for the nationalist units to lay down their arms is necessary," he said, adding Kyiv had to fulfil a list of Moscow's demands. - AFP