© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcon from the 140th Wing of the Colorado Air National Guard during NATO exercise Saber Strike flies over Amari military air base, Estonia June 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins
KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine’s defence minister is expected in Paris on Tuesday to meet President Emmanuel Macron amid a debate among Kyiv’s allies over whether to provide fighter jets for its war against Russia, after U.S. President Joe Biden ruled out giving F-16s.
Ukraine planned to push for Western fourth-generation fighters like F-16s after securing supplies of main battle tanks last week, an adviser to Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said on Friday.
Asked at the White House on Monday if the United States would provide F-16s, Biden told reporters: “No.”
But France and Poland appear to be willing to entertain any such request from Ukraine, with Macron telling reporters in The Hague on Monday that “by definition, nothing is excluded” when it comes to military assistance.
In remarks carried on French television before Biden spoke in Washington, Macron stressed any such move would depend on several factors including the need to avoid escalation and assurances that the aircraft would not “touch Russian soil.” He said Reznikov would also meet his French counterpart Sebastien Lecornu in Paris on Tuesday.
In Poland on Monday, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki also did not rule out a possible supply of F-16s to neighbouring Ukraine, in response to a question from a reporter before Biden spoke.
Morawiecki said in remarks posted on his website that any such transfer would take place “in complete coordination” with NATO countries.
Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukraine president’s office, noted “positive signals” from Poland and said France “does not exclude” such a move in separate posts on his Telegram channel.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg was in Japan on Tuesday where he thanked Tokyo for the “planes and the cargo capabilities” it is providing Ukraine. A day earlier in South Korea he urged Seoul to increase its military support to Ukraine.
Biden’s comment came shortly after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia had begun exacting its revenge for Ukraine’s resistance to its invasion with relentless attacks in the east, where it appeared to be making incremental gains.
Zelenskiy has warned for weeks that Moscow aims to step up its assault after about two months of virtual stalemate along the front line that stretches across the south and east.
Ukraine won a huge boost last week when Germany and the United States announced plans to provide heavy tanks, ending weeks of diplomatic deadlock on the issue.
While there was no sign of a broader new Russian offensive, the administrator of Russian-controlled parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk province, Denis Pushilin, said Russian troops had secured a foothold in Vuhledar, a coal-mining town whose ruins have been a Ukrainian bastion since the outset of the war.
Pushilin said that despite “huge losses” Ukrainian forces were consolidating positions in industrial facilities.
‘BATTLE FOR EVERY METER’
Pushilin said Ukrainian forces were throwing reinforcements at Bakhmut, Maryinka and Vuhledar, towns running from north to south just west of Donetsk city. The Russian state news agency TASS quoted him as saying Russian forces were making advances there, but “not clear-cut, that is, here there is a battle for literally every meter.”
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Ukraine still controlled Maryinka and Vuhledar, where Russian attacks were less intense on Monday.
Pushilin’s adviser, Yan Gagin, said fighters from Russian mercenary force Wagner had taken partial control of a supply road leading to Bakhmut, a city that has been Moscow’s focus for months.
A day earlier, the head of Wagner said his fighters had secured Blahodatne, a village just north of Bakhmut, although Kyiv said it had repelled assaults on Blahodatne.
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield reports. But the locations of the reported fighting indicated clear, though gradual, Russian gains.
In central Zaporizhzhia region and in southern Kherson region, Russian forces shelled more than 40 settlements, Ukraine’s General Staff said. Targets included the city of Kherson, where there were casualties.
The Russians also launched four rocket attacks on Ochakiv in southern Mykolaiv, the army said, on the day Zelenskiy met the Danish prime minister in Mykolaiv city, to the northeast.
Zelenskiy is urging the West to hasten delivery of its promised weapons so Ukraine can go on the offensive, but most of the hundreds of tanks pledged by Western countries are months away from delivery.
British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said the 14 Challenger tanks donated by Britain would be on the front line around April or May, without giving an exact timetable.
Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Western countries supplying arms leads “to NATO countries more and more becoming directly involved in the conflict – but it doesn’t have the potential to change the course of events and will not do so.”
The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War think-tank said “the West’s failure to provide the necessary materiel” last year was the main reason Kyiv’s advances had halted since November.
The researchers said in a report that Ukraine could still recapture territory once the promised weapons arrive.
The Belarusian defence ministry said on Tuesday that Russia and Belarus had started a week-long session of staff training in preparation for joint drills in Russia in September.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Moscow justifies as necessary to protect itself from its neighbour’s ties with the West, has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.