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Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Kremlin: Zelensky’s US visit clarifies Ukraine wants war

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Russian officials on Thursday derided Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s wartime visit to the United States, claiming in several statements that his whirlwind trip to cement support in Washington proved he and his American allies were not “striving for peace” in Ukraine.

Mr Zelensky received thunderous applause from members of Congress during a hastily organised trip on Wednesday, his first known trip outside Ukraine since Russian troops invaded the country on February 24.

Hours before the president’s arrival, the US announced a new 1.8 billion dollar military aid package.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned that providing Mr Zelensky’s troops with more sophisticated weapons would not end the conflict, which has produced grinding though largely stalemated ground battles for territory and Russian air attacks on civilian power and water supplies.

Moscow did not hear “real calls for peace” during Mr Zelensky’s US visit and thinks Washington is determined to “de facto and indirectly fight with Russia to the last Ukrainian,” Mr Peskov said. He also criticised Ukraine’s “barbaric shelling of residential buildings” in Russian-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine.

Volodymyr Zelensky holds an American flag that was gifted to him by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as he leaves after addressing a joint meeting of Congress

The Moscow-installed leader of Ukraine’s partially occupied Donetsk region reported that Ukrainian shelling of a hotel in the city of Donetsk killed two people and wounded several others on Wednesday night, including a former Russian deputy prime minister.

On Thursday, a car bomb killed a Kremlin-appointed local official in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, Russian state media reported.

The casualties demonstrated the high stakes and fierce fighting as Russia and Ukrainian forces battle for control of four regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed in September.

Mr Zelensky landed in Poland on Thursday while travelling back to Ukraine, according to information he posted on social media. He wrote that he met “a friend of Ukraine” on his way home.

A video showed him being greeted by Polish officials after getting off an airplane. He and Polish President Andrzej Duda hugged, exchanged greetings and then sat down to speak

Earlier in the day, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova echoed Mr Peskov’s dim assessment of the Ukrainian leader’s travels, saying the talks in Washington “showed that neither Ukraine nor the United States are striving for peace”.

“They are simply determined to continue hostilities,” Ms Zakharova said.

Russia’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, accused Mr Zelensky and American officials of “focusing on war … and further tying the Ukrainian regime to the needs of Washington”.

Russian state TV sought to downplay the military and political support Mr Zelensky has received in Washington, stressing in a news segment that not all members of Congress showed up to listen to Mr Zelensky’s speech. Commentators also criticised the Ukrainian leader’s “casual attire” during his White House visit with President Joe Biden.

Russia and Ukraine held several rounds of talks in Belarus and Turkey early on in the war, and Mr Zelensky repeatedly called for a personal meeting with Mr Putin. The talks stalled after the last meeting of the delegations in Istanbul in March yielded no results.

After Mr Putin annexed the Ukrainian regions and declared martial law there, Mr Zelensky said he no longer was willing to negotiate with the Russian president. He stressed that one of the conditions for dialogue to begin would be the “restoration of (Ukraine’s) territorial integrity”.

A civilian walks among heavily damaged residential buildings in Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine

The deaths and wounding of Kremlin-backed officials in areas that Mr Putin considers Russian territory could lead to retaliation. Former Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who also previously served as head of Russian state space agency Roscosmos, was admitted to hospital after the attack on the Donetsk city hotel, Russian news agencies reported.

Mr Rogozin was celebrating his birthday at a restaurant when the hotel came under fire, according to reports on Russian social media channels. He wrote in a Telegram post that he had been holding a “work meeting” and was scheduled to undergo surgery because a metal fragment was stuck in his spine above his right shoulder blade.

Several other people, including the Moscow-appointed head of the regional government in Donetsk, were reported wounded. Denis Pushilin, a Ukrainian separatist leader whom Moscow named as acting governor after it illegally annexed the region and three others, said Mr Rogozin and the wounded officials were “lucky” because “the guys who were near them, two were killed”.

Mr Rogozin said the hotel in Donetsk had never before come under fire before in the eight years since Russia-backed separatists took control of a large part of the eastern region. He suggested that those behind the shelling must have been tipped off by his presence

In a statement on Thursday, Ukraine’s Border Force tacitly acknowledged the shelling in Donetsk. The statement said the border service concluded that “Russian citizen D Rogozin” had illegally crossed into Ukraine and was “discovered on the territory temporarily occupied by Russia in the Donetsk region”.

The border agency emphasised that entering Ukraine illegally “has consequences”, but it did not say that Ukrainian forces targeted Mr Rogozin in the city of Donetsk.

The Ukrainian government has previously maintained ambiguity over high-profile attacks on military and infrastructure targets on Russian territory and in occupied Crimea.

The Tass news agency identified the official killed in the Kherson region car bombing as the head of Lyubymivka, a riverside village just inside Russian-held territory on the east bank of the Dnieper River. Ukrainian news reports named him as Andrey Shtepa.

Pro-Kyiv partisans have for months operated behind Russian lines in Ukraine’s occupied south and east, targeting Kremlin-installed officials, institutions and key infrastructure, such roads and bridges.

The Russian military on Thursday reported that Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu paid a visit to Russian troops on the front line of what the Kremlin calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine. The exact location of the visit was not disclosed.

A video released by the Russian Defence Ministry showed Mr Shoigu inspecting temporary troop quarters in dugouts and talking to military commanders.

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