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Ukraine live briefing: E.U. leaders arrive in Kyiv for wartime summit; Putin evokes past on Stalingrad anniversary

Senior European officials arrived in Kyiv on Thursday, in what European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted was a demonstration “that the EU stands by Ukraine as firmly as ever.” The European Union’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, announced that the bloc would double the number of Ukrainian soldiers it trains, and it pledged about $27 million to fund demining efforts.

E.U. leaders will take part in a wartime summit with Ukraine on Friday, which Kyiv hopes will help its bid to become a member of the bloc. However, E.U. officials are unlikely to offer Ukraine any concrete promises during the meeting, and full membership is likely to be years, if not decades, away.

In a speech in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, marking the 80th anniversary of the Soviet army’s victory over Nazi German forces there, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed victory in Ukraine, continuing to build on a line of rhetoric that has suffused his remarks since the invasion of Ukraine, casting the Ukrainian government as Nazis and calling on the popular memory of Russia’s World War II history to bolster support for the war with Ukraine. The potential of German Leopard tanks engaging with Russian forces has lent new force to this propaganda narrative.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

1. Key developments

  • The E.U. will “deepen further our support and cooperation” with Kyiv,von der Leyen said, while noting that it was the fourth time she has visited Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. Though the 27-member bloc is broadly supportive of Ukraine, it remains split on the idea of fast-track E.U. membership, with many countries worried about the cost of reconstructing Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky remained optimistic about E.U. membership prospects. “I thank Mrs. President of the European Commission, her colleagues and our friends in the E.U. for their tangible support on the path of integration and in protecting our country and people,” Zelensky said during his evening address on Thursday. “I believe that Ukraine deserves to reach the beginning of negotiations on E.U. membership this year.”
  • Von der Leyen said an international center for the prosecution of the crime of aggression in Ukraine will be established in The Hague. The body will coordinate evidence collection and work closely with the joint investigation teams supported by the E.U. Agency for Criminal Justice Cooperation, she said. The crime of aggression, while fundamental and relatively provable, is notoriously difficult to prosecute.
  • Zelensky praised an ongoing anti-corruption drive as “movement toward justice,” after the home of oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky was raided and construction companies were searched in Kyiv and top officials were investigated and dismissed Wednesday. The E.U. has set out anticorruption efforts as a condition of Ukraine’s joining the bloc, and an E.U. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to brief reporters, called the investigations a sign of Ukraine’s “determination” to address corruption.
  • Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sidestepped questions about Ukraine’s request for F-16 fighter jets during his visit to the Philippines. Speaking at a news conference on Thursday, Austin said the United States is “focused on providing Ukraine the capability it needs to be effective in its upcoming, anticipated counteroffensive in the spring.” Earlier this week, President Biden rejected the possibility of sending F-16 jets to Ukraine. However, Pentagon officials voiced skepticism, noting that the administration previously dismissed Kyiv’s requests for tanks, only to later reverse the decision.
  • Russia’s foreign minister appeared to suggest that Moscow would need to launch an offensive in response to the Western supply of weapons in Ukraine. “We are in the midst of a geopolitical battle,” Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with state television on Thursday. “The more long-range weapons the West supplies to the Kyiv regime, the further they should be moved from the Russian territory.”
  • Ukraine won’t strike Russian territory if it’s given the long-range missiles it has been asking the West to supply, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said at a meeting Thursday with the European Commission reported by Ukrainian state media. “Ukraine is ready to provide any guarantees that your weapons will not be involved in attacks on Russian territory,” Reznikov said, according to state media. “We have enough targets in the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine and are ready to coordinate targets with our partners.”
Police officers inspect a crater near a residential building destroyed by a Russian missile strike in Kramatorsk on Thursday. (Vitalii Hnidyi/Reuters)

2. Battleground updates

  • Russia may launch an offensive on or around Feb. 24  the anniversary of the start of last year’s invasion — Reznikov told the French television network BFM. Ukrainian officials suspect Moscow may have assembled hundreds of thousands of troops for the potential attack. The remarks coincide with Ukrainian intelligence officials’ assessment that Ukraine is on the eve of an active phase at the front.
  • A former commander of the Russian mercenary group Wagner has apologized for joining the fight against Ukraine. Andrey Medvedev, who sought asylum in Norway after crossing the border in January, told Reuters news agency that he wanted to talk about his experiences to ensure that “the perpetrators are punished” for their actions in Ukraine. The United States estimates that Wagner has deployed 50,000 fighters in Ukraine — 40,000 of them convicts recruited directly from Russian prisons.
  • A CNN correspondent said his team was “maybe 40 or 50 yards” from a major Russian blast in Kramatorsk in eastern Ukraine on Thursday. The CNN team was reporting on the large rescue operation at the site of a residential building “flattened” in an explosion hours earlier when a second and third strike hit the same building, sending dozens running for cover, CNN correspondent Fred Pleitgen told the channel. “The bottom line … there was a place where there was an active search-and-rescue-operation, and that place was targeted in a densely populated area once again today by the Russian military,” Pleitgen said.
  • Ukraine is building “offensive guard” brigades, made up of police and border guards, with the goal of “liberating our territories,” acting minister of internal affairs Ihor Klymenko said Thursday. “These are people who went through the crucible of 2014-2015, some of whom fought already in 2022,” Klymenko explained. “Some of them are wounded. The units will consist exclusively of volunteers who are driven by patriotism and there are a lot of such people in our country.”

3. Global impact

  • Austria expelled four Russian diplomats in Vienna,saying two at the Russian Embassy and two from Russia’s U.N. mission had committed “acts incompatible” with their diplomatic status or international agreements. The four individuals were given a week to leave Vienna, which hosts an unusually large number of Russian diplomats because of the presence of U.N. agencies.
  • The United States will move $135 million from the U.S. Russia Investment Fund,a government entity established to boost the private sector in post-Cold War Russia,to instead support economic recovery in Ukraine and neighboring Moldova, the U.S. Agency for International Development said Wednesday. An additional $18 million from the fund will be directed toward Russian human rights activists, independent media and pro-democracy groups, USAID said. The U.S. Russia Investment Fund had remained largely unused in the past dozen-plus years.
  • A senior Ukrainian lawmaker urged Washington to impose sanctions on China and India should the two countries continue purchases of Russian energy. The “United States can and should deter China from helping Russia and preferably introduce secondary sanctions to stop China from financing the Russian economy and the Russian military machine by buying Russian oil and gas,” Oleksandr Merezhko told reporters, according to Agence France-Presse.
  • The White House isn’t opposed to Russian and Belarusian athletes competing in the Olympics, so long as it is “absolutely clear that they are not representing the Russian or Belarusian states,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Thursday. The International Olympic Committee released a plan last month to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete under such an arrangement, though the plan elicited protests from Ukraine.
  • Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland pushed back against the move to allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in the Olympics on Thursday. “Efforts to return Russian and Belarusian athletes to international sports competitions under the veil of neutrality legitimize political decisions and widespread propaganda of these countries,” the four countries’ sports ministers said in a joint statement.

4. From our correspondents

In visit to wartime Kyiv, E.U. sells ‘European dream’ that remains distant:As European officials bill their summit in Kyiv as an act of solidarity, Ukrainian officials are continuing to push for fighter jets and other heavy weaponry, as well as E.U. membership within a few years.

European Council President Charles Michel and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at a news conference in Kyiv last month. (Sergey Dolzhenko/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

But the delegation that arrived in Ukraine is unlikely to offer any concrete promises on these demands — and is instead expected to yield photo ops and a statement praising Ukrainian efforts, Emily Rauhala reports.

E.U. officials “have created expectations, especially when it comes to accession, that are not in reach, to be honest,” said one E.U. diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be candid.

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