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Uneasy calm grips Ukraine as West prepares winter aid

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By Jamey Keaten in Kyiv

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — An uneasy calm hung over Kyiv on Tuesday as residents of the Ukrainian capital did what they could to prepare for anticipated Russian missile attacks aiming to take out more energy infrastructure as winter sets in.

To ease that burden, NATO allies made plans to boost provisions of blankets, generators and other basic necessities to ensure Ukraine’s 43 million people can maintain their resolve in the 10th month of fighting against Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine’s first lady implored the West to show the same kind of steadfastness that Ukrainians had shown against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military campaign.

“Ukrainians are very tired of this war, but we have no choice in the matter,” Olena Zelenska, the wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said in a BBC interview during a visit to Britain.

“We do hope that the approaching season of Christmas doesn’t make you forget about our tragedy and get used to our suffering,” she said.

A two-day meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Bucharest, Romania, was likely to see the 30-nation alliance make fresh pledges of nonlethal support to Ukraine: fuel, generators, medical supplies and winter equipment, on top of new military support.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was to announce substantial U.S. aid for Ukraine’s energy grid, U.S. officials said. Targeted Russian strikes have battered Ukraine’s power infrastructure since early October in what Western officials have described as a Russian attempt campaign to weaponize the coming winter cold.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said at the outset of the Bucharest meeting that Russia “is willing to use extreme brutality and leave Ukraine cold and dark this winter. So we must stay the course and help Ukraine prevail as a sovereign nation.”

About a third of Ukraine’s residents faced power supply disruptions, Ukraine’s state grid operator said, both because of increased demand due to colder temperatures and the emergency shutdown of power units at several plants since Monday morning.

“The overall deficit in the energy system is a consequence of seven waves of Russian missile attacks on the country’s energy infrastructure,” electricity system operator Ukrenergo said.

Kyiv saw continued interruptions to its electricity, heat and water supply, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said Tuesday, leading authorities to “consider the option of partial evacuation of the capital’s residents to the suburbs.”

Blinken reminded everyone it was not the first time that Russia had targeted helpless civilians in this war and insisted only strong support would impact the Kremlin.

Russia’s Black Sea fleet already bombarded Ukrainian cities and towns and bottled up vital grain shipments for the rest of the world in Ukrainian ports. Blinken said the U.S and NATO’s resulting military buildup in the strategic waterway would only intensify.

“We’re not going to be deterred,” he told reporters, in one of his more forceful statements of the day. “We’re going to be reinforcing NATO’s presence from the Black to the Baltic seas.”

Bogdan Aurescu, foreign minister of Romania, another Black Sea nation, said that Romania would be pushing the two-day NATO meeting to up the military presence further still.

The Ukrainian government was putting up defenses too — both for troops and for civilians. The government rolled out hundreds of help stations, christened Points of Invincibility, where residents facing the loss of power, heating and water can warm up, charge their phones, enjoy snacks and hot drinks, and even be entertained.

“I had no electricity for two days. Now there’s only some electricity, and no gas,” said Vanda Bronyslavavina, who took a breather inside one such help center in Kyiv’s Obolon neighborhood.

The 71-year-old lamented the uncertainty about whether Russia will simply resume its strikes after infrastructure gets fixed, a frustrating cycle of destruction and repair that has made wartime life even more uncertain.

Kyrylo Tymoshenko, the deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said Russian forces overnight fired on seven regions in Ukraine’s south and east, employing missiles, drones and heavy artillery. At least one civilian was killed and two wounded.

Tymoshenko said that as of Tuesday, power had been restored to 24% of residents in the hard-hit southern city of Kherson.

On the battlefields in eastern Ukraine’s Russia-annexed Luhansk region, Ukrainian forces were continuing a slow advance, pushing toward Russian defense lines set up between two key cities, Gov. Serhiy Haidai said. He acknowledged in televised remarks that the onset of winter was compounding a “difficult” military situation.

The prospect of any peace remained remote. The Kremlin reaffirmed Tuesday that negotiations could only be possible if Ukraine meets Russian demands. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “it’s impossible to hold any talks now because the Ukrainian side strongly rejects them.”

He noted that “political will and readiness to discuss the Russian demands” are needed to conduct negotiations.

Russia has demanded that Ukraine recognize Crimea as part of Russia and acknowledge other Russian gains. It also has repeated its earlier demands for “demilitarization” and “denazification,” albeit with less vigor than in the past.

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Jill Lawless in London and Lorne Cook in Bucharest contributed to this report.

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After US offer, Germany unleashes Leopard tanks for Ukraine

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By Frank Jordans And Kirsten Grieshaber in Berlin

BERLIN (AP) — After weeks of hesitation that created impatience among Germany’s allies, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced Wednesday that his government would provide Ukraine with Leopard 2 battle tanks and approve requests by other countries to do the same.

The German government said it would initially provide Ukraine with one company of Leopard 2 A6 tanks, or 14 vehicles. The goal is for Germany and its allies to provide Ukraine with 88 of the German-made Leopards, which comprise two battalions.

“This is the result of intensive consultations, once again, with our allies and international partners,” Scholz said in an address to German lawmakers.

“It was right and it is important that we didn’t let ourselves be driven (into making the decision),” he added.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed satisfaction at the news. Several European countries have equipped their armies with Leopard 2 tanks, and Germany’s announcement means they can give some of their stocks to Ukraine.

“German main battle tanks, further broadening of defense support and training missions, green light for partners to supply similar weapons. Just heard about these important and timely decisions in a call with Olaf Scholz,” Zelenskyy wrote on Twitter. “Sincerely grateful to the chancellor and all our friends in (Germany).”

The long-awaited decision came after U.S. officials revealed Tuesday a preliminary agreement for the United States to send M1 Abrams tanks to help Ukraine’s troops push back Russian forces that remain entrenched in the country’s east almost a year after Russia invaded its neighbor. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the decision has not yet been made public.

It is not clear when or how the tanks would be delivered to Ukraine, or how soon they could have an impact on the battlefield. Military analysts have said Russian forces are thought to be preparing for a spring offensive.

While Ukraine’s supporters previously have supplied tanks, they were Soviet models in the stockpiles of countries that once were in Moscow’s sphere of influence but are now aligned with the West. Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials insisted their forces need more modern Western-designed tanks to defeat Russia.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed Germany’s decision. “At a critical moment in Russia’s war, these can help Ukraine to defend itself, win and prevail as an independent nation,” Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.

Russia’s ambassador to Germany, Sergey Nechayev, called Berlin’s decision to send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine “extremely dangerous.”

The move “shifts the conflict to a new level of confrontation and contradicts the statements of German politicians about their reluctance to get involved in it,” Nechayev said in a statement.

“We’re seeing yet again that Germany, as well as its closest allies, is not interested in a diplomatic resolution of the Ukraine crisis. it is determined to permanently escalate it and to indefinitely pump the Kyiv regime full of new lethal weapons,” the statement read.

Scholz had insisted that any decision to provide Ukraine with powerful Leopard 2 tanks would need to be taken in conjunction with Germany’s allies, chiefly the United States. By getting Washington to commit some of its own tanks, Berlin hopes to share the risk of any backlash from Russia.

Ekkehard Brose, head of the German military’s Federal Academy for Security Policy, said tying the United States into the decision was crucial, to avoid Europe facing a nuclear-armed Russia alone.

But he also noted the deeper historic significance of the decision.

“German-made tanks will face off against Russian tanks in Ukraine once more,” he said, adding that this was “not an easy thought” for Germany, which takes its responsibility for the horrors of World War II seriously.

“And yet it is the right decision,” Brose said, arguing that it was up to Western democracies to help Ukraine stop Russia’s military campaign.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius cautioned that it would take about three months for the first tanks to be deployed in Ukraine. He described the Leopard 2 as “the best battle tank in the world.”

“This is an important game change, possibly also for this war, at least in the current phase,” he said.

The German government said it planned to swiftly begin training Ukrainian tank crews in Germany. The package being put together would also include logistics, ammunition and maintenance.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov described German and U.S. intentions with the tanks as a “a rather disastrous plan.”

“I am convinced that many specialists understand the absurdity of this idea,” Peskov told reporters Wednesday.

“Simply because of technological aspects, this is a rather disastrous plan. The main thing is, this is a completely obvious overestimation of the potential (the supply of tanks) would add to the armed forces of Ukraine. It is yet another fallacy, a rather profound one,” the Kremlin official said.

Peskov predicted “these tanks will burn down just like all the other ones. … Except they cost a lot, and this will fall on the shoulders of European taxpayers.” he added.

Germany has already provided considerable amounts of military hardware to Ukraine, including powerful PzH 2000 howitzers, Iris-T air-defense systems and Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns that have proved highly effective against Russian drones. It also announced plans to supply a Patriot air-defense battery and Marder infantry fighting vehicles.

Ahead of Scholz’s official announcement, members of his three-party coalition government welcomed the Cabinet’s agreement to supply the domestically made tanks.

“The Leopard’s freed!” German lawmaker Katrin Goering-Eckardt, a senior Green party lawmaker, said.

However, two smaller opposition parties criticized the move. The far-right Alternative for Germany, which has friendly ties to Russia, called the decision “irresponsible and dangerous.”

“Germany risks being drawn directly into the war as a result,” party co-leader Tino Chrupalla said.

The Left party, which also has historic links to Moscow, warned of a possible escalation in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Recent opinion polls showed German voters split on the idea.

Scholz sought to reassure people in his country who were concerned about the implications of sending tanks to Ukraine.

“Trust me, trust the government,” he said. “By acting in an internationally coordinated manner, we will ensure that this support is possible without the risks to our country growing in the wrong direction.”

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who had previously called into question Germany’s commitment to helping Ukraine, thanked Scholz following Wednesday’s announcement.

“The decision to send Leopards to Ukraine is a big step towards stopping Russia,” Morawiecki wrote on Twitter. “Together we are stronger.”

Other European nations, such as Finland and Spain, indicated a willingness Wednesday to part with their own Leopard or similar battle tanks as part of a larger coalition.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak of Britain, which had said it planned to send 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks to Ukraine, welcomed Germany’s decision to further “strengthen Ukraine’s defensive firepower.”

“Together, we are accelerating our efforts to ensure Ukraine wins this war and secures a lasting peace,” Sunak said on Twitter.

Still, it isn’t clear whether Ukraine will receive the estimated 300 tanks that analysts say are required to keep Russia from advancing in Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia provinces and to press a counteroffensive in the country’s southeast.

Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian president’s office, said on Telegram after Germany’s announcement that “many Leopards are needed.”

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Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee in Washington, Vanessa Gera in Warsaw and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.

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

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Putin: Ukraine action aimed to end ‘war’ raging since 2014

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ST. PETERSBURG, Russia (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday that Moscow’s action in Ukraine was intended to stop a “war” that has raged in eastern Ukraine for many years.

Speaking at a meeting with veterans, Putin said Moscow had long sought to negotiate a settlement to the conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas, an eastern industrial region where Russia-backed separatists have battled Ukrainian forces since 2014.

“Large-scale combat operations involving heavy weapons, artillery, tanks and aircraft haven’t stopped in Donbas since 2014,” Putin said. “All that we are doing today as part of the special military operation is an attempt to stop this war. This is the meaning of our operation — protecting people who live on those territories.”

Putin insisted again that Russia tried to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the separatist conflict before sending in troops, and said “we were just duped and cheated.”

He described Ukraine’s east as Russia’s “historic territories,” adding that Moscow conceded their loss after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union but had to act to protect Russian speakers there.

Putin has explained his decision to send troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 by citing a need to protect Russian speakers, as well as to pursue the “demilitarization” and “denazification” of Ukraine to prevent the neighboring country from posing a threat to Russia. Ukraine and its Western allies have rejected the rationale as a cover for an unprovoked act of aggression.

Putin attended the meeting with veterans during a visit to St. Petersburg for the 80th anniversary of the Red Army breaking the Nazi siege there on Jan. 18, 1943.

The blockade of the city, which was then called Leningrad, lasted nearly 900 days and was only fully lifted in January 1944, marking one of the bloodiest pages of World War II. About 1 million people died in Leningrad during the siege, most of them from starvation.

Putin on Wednesday laid a wreath at the city’s Piskaryov memorial cemetery, where 420,000 civilian victims of the siege and 70,000 Soviet soldiers were buried. He also put flowers in a section where his brother, who died as a child during the siege, was buried in a mass grave.

Putin said once that his mother was declared dead and was about to be taken for burial when his father, who had just come home on a visit from the frontlines, managed to ward off a funeral team at the last moment and helped her recover.

Putin’s father, who was badly wounded in fighting for Leningrad, died in 1999 at the age of 88, and his mother died the previous year aged 86.

Putin on Wednesday also visited a defense factory in St. Petersburg, where he promised workers more social benefits and draft deferments. He said the “courage and heroism of our soldiers” and defense industry efforts would secure Russia’s victory.

Speaking energetically but frequently clearing his throat, Putin said Russia produces three times as many air defense missiles as the United States.

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