'We are saving the lives of our soldiers': Zelenskyy defends withdrawal from Avdiivka

Under heavy artillery fire, Ukrainian troops faced threat of encirclement in town as munitions ran dry

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said delays in western military aid had strengthened Russia's position on the battlefield. AP
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Ukraine's front-line soldiers face an unequal battle with Russia's long-range artillery after supplies of weapons from its allies were curtailed by shortages and political deadlock, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said.

Mr Zelenskyy said Ukraine was facing a Russian barrage, with its infantry as its main weapon of defence. Kyiv's new military chief Oleksandr Syrsky on Saturday confirmed the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops from the devastated eastern city of Avdiivka.

The development handed Russia its biggest symbolic victory in almost a year, but Mr Zelenskyy said the Kremlin was not making any significant gains. “We are saving the lives of our soldiers,” he told the Munich Security Conference. “Our human beings are fighting long-range artillery.”

He said taking “villages and small towns” had come of the cost of thousands of soldiers' lives, and revealed that Russian casualty rates were seven times higher than Ukraine's.

Mr Zelenskyy said his country's lack of access to weapons was strengthening Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Unfortunately, keeping Ukraine in an artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in a deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” he said.

“Do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself, why is Putin still able to continue it?”

Reflecting on the war with Russia, Mr Zelenskyy said that throughout the 724 days of fighting, Kyiv had been able to “destroy” the Kremlin's myth that Ukraine is not a country.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the same conference that European countries must act to fill the gap that has resulted from the US failure to renew its support for Ukraine.

“A comparable effort must be the minimum that every European country undertakes,” he said. Germany has committed more than €7 billion ($7.54 billion) in military aid to Kyiv this year, and its commitments for the coming years amount to €6 billion.

“I would very much like to see similar decisions made in all EU capitals,” Mr Scholz said.

“We Europeans must take much more care of our own security, now and in the future.”

Trump at the forefront

The possible return to office of former US president Donald Trump preoccupied much of the discussion around Nato and Ukraine.

Asked if he would welcome Mr Trump to Kyiv, Mr Zelenskyy issued an open invitation. “If Trump comes, I'm ready to go to the front with him.

“Decision makers need to know what the war is like in reality, and not just what it is like on Instagram.”

Mr Zelenskyy had previously extended a similar invitation to Mr Trump in November last year.

Meanwhile, US Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Estonian Secretary General Tonis Saar announced at the conference the transfer of nearly $500,000 in forfeited Russian funds for the purpose of providing aid to Ukraine.

The Justice Department said the transfer, the first of its kind from the US to a foreign ally for the express purpose of assisting Ukraine, was made using funds forfeited following the breakup of an illegal procurement network attempting to import into Russia a high-precision, US-origin machine tool with uses in the defense and nuclear proliferation sectors.

Updated: February 17, 2024, 1:23 PM