Eastern Ukraine Ben Wedeman
Eastern Ukraine prepares to defend against Russian forces
01:56 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

US officials are confronting fresh questions about whether a massive aid package for Ukraine will arrive soon enough and whether it will be enough to sustain Ukrainian forces in what is turning into a protracted war with Russia.

Ukraine is bracing for the expected escalation of Russian attacks in the Donbas region in the country’s east. As they try to adapt to that challenging new terrain, the US is ramping up its commitment to help – sending an additional $800 million worth of weapons and ammunition in a package that includes additional Mi-17 helicopters, Howitzer cannons, several hundred Switchblade drones, counter-artillery radar systems and protective equipment to guard against potential chemical attacks.

But getting that aid in the hands of Ukraine’s armed forces is now facing a race against time.

New satellite images have captured increasing numbers of Russian troops and armored vehicles pouring into eastern Ukraine – territory where Russia holds many more advantages than in its earlier assault on northern Ukraine and the capital of Kyiv – as Russian President Vladimir Putin continues to show that he will use any means necessary to fulfill his ambitions of gaining control of that region.

The new round of artillery and munitions brings the total of US military aid to Ukraine to $3.2 billion since the Biden administration took office. The US effort was bolstered Wednesday by the European Union’s announcement of an additional $544 million in military support for Ukraine – including military and personal protective equipment, fuel and first aid kits – bringing its total aid to $1.63 billion.

Pentagon press secretary John Kirby emphasized that the US had tailored its own list to meet Ukraine’s specific requests, to give the country “every possible advantage in this fight that is coming” in the Donbas region. But he also acknowledged that certain big-ticket items on the list – including the Howitzers and counter-artillery radar systems – would require additional training of Ukrainian soldiers involving US troops.

He noted during Wednesday’s briefing that Russia will likely try to use tanks, long-range fires and artillery “to achieve some of their objectives before committing ground troops” in an area that is flatter, more open and a “little bit like Kansas.” The new terrain means Ukraine’s weaponry needs have changed as it prepares for this next battle, he said.

“We are going to move this as fast as we can,” Kirby said when pressed by CNN’s Barbara Starr about whether the aid would be too late. He argued that there is still a window because Russians are “not fully up to readiness” for their renewed push in the Donbas: “We are taking advantage of every day, every hour, to get this stuff there as fast as we can.”

Kirby declined to offer an assessment of how much time the US will have to help move the new aid into position before it is needed, but he noted that previous security assistance had been sent in as little as four to six days after packages were approved.

“We’re aware of the clock and we know time is not our friend,” he said.

The Pentagon hosted the CEOs of the military’s eight largest prime contractors Wednesday to figure out how to arm Ukraine faster, according to a readout of the classified meeting.

Situation in Mariupol grows dire

The urgency of the moment was underscored by the tenuous situation Ukraine is facing with its resources stretched thin as the strategic port city of Mariupol – a main Russian target that has been devastated by shelling – teeters on the brink.

The city’s mayor said Wednesday that as many as 180,000 people are waiting to be evacuated, many trapped without adequate access to food, water and electricity, but there were no operational humanitarian corridors Wednesday as Russian forces blocked evacuation buses that would have provided a way out, according to Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk.

And a day after President Joe Biden declared that a “genocide” is unfolding in Ukraine, the scale of the atrocities faced by the Ukrainian people was brought into sharper focus in a 110-page report from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

The paper detailed “clear patterns” of violations of international humanitarian law by Russian forces in Ukraine, and included the chilling account of a woman who said she had been raped repeatedly “in the presence of her small child” by a drunk Russian soldier who had killed her husband. It was just one of many allegations of rape, including gang rapes, by Russian soldiers throughout Ukraine since the conflict began.

US Ambassador to the OSCE Michael Carpenter said the report documented “a catalog of inhumanity perpetrated by Russia’s forces in Ukraine” by laying bare the direct targeting of civilians, executions, attacks on hospitals and medical facilities, and the forced deportation of civilians to Russia.

White House defends Biden’s ‘genocide’ comment

As international outrage grows, Biden has now edged further than some of his European allies – and even leaders in his own administration – by defining Russia’s gruesome acts as genocide. But even as that position has created a disconnect with some European allies, the White House did not back away from Biden’s assessment Wednesday.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the President had been speaking to “what he feels as clear as day in terms of the atrocities happening on the ground.” The legal process for determining whether a genocide has taken place will proceed on its own timeline, US officials have said, and Biden’s pronouncement won’t alter US policy.

But, Psaki added, “He’s the President of the United States and the leader of the free world, and he is allowed to make his views known at any point he would like.” Late Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered his support for Biden in expressing his views, stating it was “absolutely right that more and more people” are using the word “genocide” to describe Russia’s actions. But Trudeau chose not to use the term himself to describe the situation.

While Biden’s stance may reflect the sense of horror that many Americans are feeling as they have watched events unfold in Ukraine, it stood in marked contrast to the approach of French President Emmanuel Macron, who suggested the remark was not helpful Wednesday as he sought to stay on more neutral ground.

“I want to continue to try, as much as I can, to stop this war and rebuild peace,” Macron said. “I am not sure that an escalation of rhetoric serves that cause.”

Putin presses ahead unfazed as criticism grows

But the hopes of rebuilding peace or persuading Putin to alter his course are growing more distant by the day as the Russian leader continues spinning his campaign of lies and propaganda, seemingly immune to the criticism sent in his direction.

Earlier this week, Putin declared that peace talks with Ukraine were at a “dead end” and continued to dismiss reports of atrocities in Bucha as fake, even though CNN bore witness to a mass grave in that Kyiv suburb as well as the scenes of bodies littering the streets. The Kremlin also swatted away Biden’s accusation that genocide is occurring in Ukraine, calling it an “unacceptable” attempt “to distort the situation.”

Putin displayed his warped view of reality during a virtual meeting on Arctic development Wednesday, where he downplayed the economic pain inflicted on his country through sanctions and insisted that the “refusal by a number of Western countries to engage in normal cooperation, including with Russian energy resources,” was creating a “real energy crisis” that could benefit Russia.

“Of course, even we are encountering problems,” Putin said, as he noted the problems stemming from inflation in the US and Europe, “but for us, alternative opportunities, options, new windows of opportunity are opening up.”

One area where Putin seems to have made a grave miscalculation are his attempts to weaken NATO, the US-led military alliance. At the beginning of the war, he made it clear that one of his aims was to roll back NATO’s borders to where they had been in the 1990s.

Instead, there were new signs this week that Finland and Sweden, which are currently nonaligned, may soon join NATO – underscoring how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may ultimately crush some of Putin’s broader ambitions.

In a new report by the Finnish government presented to the country’s parliament, officials concluded that if Finland and Sweden become full NATO members “the threshold for using military force in the Baltic Sea region would rise,” enhancing “the stability of the region in the long term.” If Finland, which shares a more than 800-mile border with Russia, joined the alliance, the report noted, the country “would be part of NATO’s collective defense, and be covered by the security guarantees enshrined in Article 5.”

At the same time, the report acknowledged how the move would anger Russia, creating “risks that are difficult to anticipate.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said the country would make its decisions within “weeks, not within months.” Sweden is preparing its own analysis of security policy, which is expected to be completed by the end of May.

In this dark and dispiriting conflict, the prospect of a strengthened NATO alliance that could curb Putin’s thirst for power would be one of the few silver linings for the West to emerge thus far.