POLITICS

Germany’s foreign minister says in Kyiv that air defenses are an ‘absolute priority’ for Ukraine

May 21, 2024, 12:53 AM | Updated: 7:40 am

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Sending air defense systems to Ukraine to help protect it from Russian cruise missiles, rockets and drones is an “absolute priority,” Germany’s foreign minister said in Kyiv on Tuesday after visiting a local power plant that was largely reduced to ruins by a recent barrage.

Annalena Baerbock said that what she called a “global initiative” launched by Germany to provide Ukraine with more air defense systems had raised nearly 1 billion euros ($1.09 billion) — “but it is completely clear that even more is needed,” she said at a news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Germany is the second-biggest supplier of military aid to Ukraine after the United States.

Ukrainian officials have for months pleaded with the country’s Western partners to supply it with further sophisticated air defense systems, especially U.S.-made Patriots, so Kyiv’s forces can fend off Russian air assaults that have pummeled the country during the war. Civilian areas as well as the power grid and military targets have repeatedly been hit.

While the bombing goes on, Ukraine’s depleted troops are trying to hold off a fierce Russian offensive along the eastern border in one of the most critical phases of the war, which began on Feb. 24, 2022.

Germany recently pledged a third U.S.-made Patriot battery for Ukraine, but Kyiv officials say they are still facing an alarming shortfall of air defenses against the Russian onslaught.

The Kremlin’s forces have used their advantage in the skies to debilitate Ukraine’s power grid, hoping to sap Ukrainian morale and disrupt its defense industry.

Baerbock, accompanied by Ukrainian Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko, toured a thermal power plant in central Ukraine that was heavily damaged on April 11. In the plant’s scorched interior, workers of Centrenergo, a state company that operates the plant, were still scooping up rubble several weeks after it was hit.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the Kremlin’s forces were still focusing their efforts on the eastern Donetsk province and northeastern Kharkiv region, where explosive-laden Russian glide bombs are wreaking destruction on military and civilian areas.

“This brings us back again and again to the need for air defense — for additional defense systems that could significantly mitigate the difficulties for our warriors and the threat to our cities and communities,” Zelenskyy said late Monday on social media.

Zelenskyy said that Ukraine’s forces are still in control of the contested areas, though Russia says it has captured a series of border villages.

It wasn’t possible to independently verify either side’s battlefield claims.

Baerbock had planned to visit Kharkiv on Tuesday, but the trip had to be called off for security reasons, German news agency dpa reported. Almost 11,000 people have been evacuated from Kharkiv border areas since Russia launched its offensive actions there on May 10.

A Russian overnight drone attack hit transport infrastructure in the city of Kharkiv, the regional capital, damaging more than 25 trucks, buses and other vehicles, regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said Tuesday. Seven people were wounded, he said.

Ukraine’s general staff said that the frequency of Russian attacks in Kharkiv slowed on Monday, though fighting continued.

Russian troops are also conducting reconnaissance and sabotage raids in Ukraine’s northern Sumy and Chernihiv regions, shelling border settlements and laying more minefields, according to Dmytro Lykhovii, Ukraine’s general staff spokesman. The front line is about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) long.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been resisting appeals from Ukrainian officials to provide Taurus missiles, which are equipped with stealth technology and have a range of up to 500 kilometers (300 miles).

The German- and Swedish-made missiles would be able to reach targets deep in Russia from Ukrainian soil. But Berlin has balked at that prospect, saying that sending the missiles would bring a risk of it becoming directly involved in the war.

The restriction on not allowing Ukraine to fire at Russia has denied Kyiv the ability to strike at Russian troops and equipment massing for attacks on the other side of the border, a Washington-based think tank said.

“These U.S. and Western policies are severely compromising Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against current Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv (region) or any area along the international border where Russian forces may choose to conduct offensive operations in the future,” the Institute for the Study of War said in an assessment late Monday.

Meanwhile, more than 3,000 Ukrainian prisoners have filed requests to be pardoned and join the army, Ukraine’s deputy justice minister, Olena Vysotska, said Tuesday, adding that authorities expected up to 5,000 prisoners to apply under the program.

The measure, which Zelenskyy signed into law late last week, is part of an effort to expand the army, which is outnumbered by Russia’s forces. Other steps to boost ranks include increasing fines for draft dodgers fivefold and providing incentives to soldiers, such as cash bonuses or money toward buying a house or car.

Prisoners convicted of serious crimes aren’t eligible, and applicants must pass tests before putting on a uniform.

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Geir Moulson contributed to this report from Berlin.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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Germany’s foreign minister says in Kyiv that air defenses are an ‘absolute priority’ for Ukraine