March 1, 2024

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Ukrainian president says counteroffensive does not aim to attack Russian territory

5 min read

Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz, rigth, and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy address a media conference at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Sunday, May 14, 2023. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived in Berlin early Sunday for talks with German leaders about further arms deliveries to help his country fend off the Russian invasion and rebuild what's been destroyed by more than a year of devastating conflict. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

BERLIN (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday that his country is preparing a counteroffensive designed to liberate areas occupied by Russia, not to attack Russian territory.

Speaking during a news conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s goal is to free the territories within its internationally recognized borders.

The Washington Post cited previously undisclosed documents from a trove of U.S. intelligence leaks suggesting that Zelenskyy has considered trying to capture areas in Russia proper for possible use as bargaining chips in peace negotiations to end the war launched by Moscow in February 2022. This would put him at odds with Western governments that have insisted that weapons they provide must not be used to attack targets in Russia.

Asked about the report, Zelenskyy said: “We don’t attack Russian territory, we liberate our own legitimate territory.”

“We have neither the time nor the strength (to attack Russia),” he said, according to an official interpreter. “And we also don’t have weapons to spare, with which we could do this.”

“We are preparing a counterattack for the illegally occupied areas based on our constitutionally defined legitimate borders, which are recognized internationally,” Zelenskyy said.

Among the areas still occupied by Russia are the Crimean peninsula and parts of eastern Ukraine with mainly Russian-speaking populations.

The Ukrainian president is visiting allies in search of further arms to help his country fend off the Russian invasion, and funds to rebuild what’s been destroyed by more than a year of devastating conflict.

A Luftwaffe jet flew Zelenskyy to the German capital from Rome, where he had met Saturday with Pope Francis and Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni.

It was his first visit to Berlin since the start of the war and came a day after the German government announced a new package of military aid for Ukraine worth more than 2.7 billion euros ($3 billion), including tanks, anti-aircraft systems and ammunition.

Zelenskyy thanked Scholz for Germany’s political, financial and military support, saying the country is now second only behind the United States in providing aid to Ukraine — and joked that he is working to make it the biggest donor.

“German air defense systems, artillery, tanks and infantry fighting vehicles are saving Ukrainian lives and bringing us closer to victory. Germany is a reliable ally! Together we are bringing peace closer!” he wrote on Twitter after the meeting.

Scholz said Berlin has so far given Kyiv some 17 billion euros in bilateral aid and that it can expect more in future.

“We will support you for as long as necessary,” he said, adding that it is up to Russia to end the war by withdrawing its troops.

After initially hesitating to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons, Germany has become one of the biggest suppliers of arms to Ukraine, including Leopard 1 and 2 battle tanks, and the sophisticated IRIS-T SLM air-defense system. Modern Western hardware is considered crucial if Ukraine is to succeed in its planned counteroffensive against Russian troops.

Zelenskyy said one reason for his latest visit to allied capitals was to forge a “fighter jet coalition” that would provide Ukraine with the combat planes it needs to counter Russia’s air dominance.

Germany has said in the past that it doesn’t have the F-16 jets Ukraine needs and Scholz responded to questions about possible plane deliveries by referring to the anti-aircraft system it has provided to Kyiv.

“That’s what we as Germany are now concentrating on,” he said.

In Ukraine, officials on Sunday denied that the country had anything to do with the downing of two Russian helicopters close to the border the day before.

In a joint statement after their meeting, Scholz and Zelenskyy said they support efforts to bring those responsible for atrocities in Ukraine to justice and noted the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

They also pledged to ensure sanctions against Russia aren’t circumvented and to explore possibilities for using frozen Russian assets to pay for damage caused in Ukraine.

Germany said it supports Kyiv’s efforts to join the European Union and backed a 2008 vow by NATO members to pave the way for Ukraine to eventually join the military alliance.

Zelenskyy first met with President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s head of state, who was snubbed by Kyiv last year, apparently over his previous close ties to Russia, causing a chill in diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Germany. Since then, both Steinmeier and Chancellor Olaf Scholz have visited Ukraine.

After meeting Scholz and other senior officials at the chancellery, the two leaders flew to the western city of Aachen for Zelenskyy to receive the prestigious International Charlemagne Prize, awarded to him and the people of Ukraine.

In her congratulatory speech, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen compared the war in Ukraine to the fall of the Iron Curtain more than 30 years ago.

“Every generation has its moment when it has to stand up to defend democracy and what it believes in,” she said. “For us, that moment has come.”

Zelenskyy accused Moscow of trying to turn back the clock of European history in its attack on Ukraine.

“Modern Russia waged war not just on us, as a free and sovereign state, not just against united Europe as a global symbol of peace and prosperity,” he said in his acceptance speech. “This is Russia’s war for the past.”

French media reported that Zelenskyy planned to travel on to Paris late Sunday, but officials at the president and prime minister’s office wouldn’t confirm.

In other developments:

Zelenskyy’s chief aide, Andriy Yermak, said Sunday that five civilians died in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region when an unexploded Russian shell blew up.

Overnight, Russia launched a “massive” attack on Ukraine with Iranian-made Shahed explosive drones, which left more than 30 people wounded, according to the Ukrainian military.

Eighteen of the 23 drones were shot down, but those that got through, and wreckage from those intercepted, damaged 50 apartment buildings, private homes and other buildings, the military said without providing further details.

Russia also hit the western city of Ternopil and southern city of Mykolaiv with rockets, wounding an unspecified number of civilians.

Shelling by Russian forces killed two people — a 59-year-old woman and a 65-year-old man — in the Chuhuiv district of Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv province on Sunday, regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov reported on Telegram.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry reported Sunday that Ukrainian forces had killed two of its colonels in the Bakhmut area.

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