Ukraine's Zelensky demands unlimited NATO aid against Russia's month-old war

AFP , Thursday 24 Mar 2022

A month since Russia launched its shock invasion, Ukraine's leader Thursday demanded NATO "save" his shattered country with all-out military aid to let its armed forces turn their dogged defence into attack.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. AP

After relentless Russian bombardment of Ukrainian cities, the vast scale of civilian suffering was made stark as the UN said more than half of all Ukraine's children have been driven from their homes.

In a video speech, President Volodymyr Zelensky told NATO leaders that Russia had unleashed phosphorus bombs on Ukraine along with indiscriminate shelling of civilians.

"A month of heroic resistance. A month of the darkest suffering," he told the leaders including US President Joe Biden, at the first of three Brussels summits that were tightening the sanctions screws on Russia.

"To save people and our cities, Ukraine needs military assistance without restrictions," Zelensky said. "In the same way that Russia is using its full arsenal without restrictions against us."

Long-range Russian strikes on the eastern city of Kharkiv killed at least six civilians and wounded more than a dozen, Ukrainian authorities said.

At least four people including two children were killed in strikes elsewhere in the east, Lugansk governor Sergiy Gayday said, accusing Russian forces of using phosphorus bombs in the village of Rubizhne.

Britain's ITV network showed footage of the incendiary weapons -- which cause horrific burns -- dropping in a white haze overnight on the commuter town of Irpin near Kyiv.

"(Russian President) Vladimir Putin has already crossed the red line into barbarism," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in Brussels.

'Big mistake'

Zelensky wants NATO to help Ukraine go on the offensive with more advanced fighter jets, missile defence systems, tanks, armoured vehicles and anti-ship missiles.

Ahead of the summits of NATO, the G7 and the European Union, he said: "At these three summits we will see: Who is a friend, who is a partner, and who betrayed us for money."

NATO members have maintained a steady stream of weapons including anti-tank rockets to Ukraine's armed forces, which have helped to stall Russia's advance. But these are seen as essentially defensive.

The United States said the allies could add anti-ship missiles to Ukraine's arsenal. It announced an extra $1 billion in humanitarian aid, and offered to take in up to 100,000 refugees.

Ukraine's navy said it had struck a Russian naval transport vessel docked in the Azov Sea near Mariupol.

Amateur footage showed plumes of black smoke billowing from a large grey vessel docked next to cranes, after what the Ukraine navy said was the strike, which AFP could not independently confirm.

Putin had made a "big mistake", NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said.

"He has underestimated the strength of the Ukrainian people, the bravery of the Ukrainian people and their armed forces."

'Grim milestone'

Zelensky's appeal came one month to the day after Russian armoured vehicles rolled over the border, igniting a conflict that is feared to have killed thousands of Ukrainian civilians, along with thousands more soldiers on both sides.

More than 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, as cities have faced sustained Russian bombardment from land, sea and air.

The month of war has displaced 4.3 million children -- more than half of Ukraine's estimated child population of 7.5 million, according to the UN children's agency Unicef.

"This is a grim milestone that could have lasting consequences for generations to come," Unicef chief Catherine Russell said.

UN figures show that nearly 3.7 million Ukrainians including 1.8 million children have fled abroad, and more are now displaced inside Ukraine after harrowing journeys out of cities like Mariupol.

In the besieged southern port, Zelensky says nearly 100,000 people are trapped without food, water or power and enduring fierce shelling by Russian forces.

Ukraine's foreign ministry tweeted that Moscow had "launched a new phase of terror against Mariupol" by forcibly deporting about 6,000 residents to Russian camps.

In Zhytomyr, a garrison town west of Kyiv, a Russian strike flattened the school where Vasiliy Kravchuk's six-year-old son was meant to start at next year.

"It's hard, it's very hard," sobbed the 37-year-old, who works for a tourism organisation which is now bereft of tourists.

"Every day it's 20, 30 times we go to the basement (to shelter). It's difficult because my wife is pregnant, I have a little son," says Kravchuk, wearing a bright pink hoodie and rubbing his eyes.

Experts say Russia's once-vaunted military has been bogged down by dogged resistance, logistical problems and low morale, and has turned to long-range bombardment in the hope of breaking Ukrainian resolve.

Heavy exchanges of shelling could be heard from Irpin, and plumes of black smoke rose into the air, an AFP team at the scene said.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Wednesday that "almost all of Irpin is already under the control of Ukrainian soldiers" after battles with Russian troops.

"The houses are destroyed, there are only basements left," businessman Leonid Markevych, 55, told AFP after fleeing from his house just outside Irpin.

Tarnishing Russian gold

Coinciding with the back-to-back Brussels summits, the United States and Britain announced further sanctions against Russian individuals and entities.

But while the Moscow Stock Exchange partially reopened for the first time since the invasion, the G7 summit in Brussels vowed new action to destabilise Russia's tottering economy.

The group of advanced economies and the EU pledged to block transactions involving the Russian central bank's gold reserves, to hamper any Moscow bid to circumvent Western sanctions, the White House said.

"The more we do that now, the more pressure we apply now, particularly on things like gold... I believe the more we can shorten the war, shorten the slaughter in Ukraine," Britain's Johnson said.

Ordinary Russians have been feeling the pinch from shortages of goods and the sudden disappearance of Western brands.

But Putin's regime has introduced draconian censorship laws to prevent independently verified news about what it calls a "special military operation."

What is clear is that Ukrainian civilians continue to bear the brunt of the war.

"There's going to have to be a further, massive scaling up of assistance within Ukraine in the coming weeks," said Michael Ryan, emergencies director for the World Health Organization.

"I have never, myself, seen such complex needs, and so quickly in a crisis that has developed so fast," he said.

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