Biden pins blame for Russian battlefield victory on Congress inaction

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US President Joe Biden has blamed Russia’s first major battlefield victory in Ukraine in nearly a year on the failure of the US Congress to pass a bill funding Kyiv’s army.

Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the weekend that Ukraine’s withdrawal from the critical eastern town of Avdiivka on Saturday came “after Ukrainian soldiers had to ration ammunition due to dwindling supplies as a result of congressional inaction”, according to a White House readout of the call.

On Sunday the Kremlin hailed Russia’s capture of the city, its first big victory since taking Bakhmut in May last year, and vowed to press on with its offensive in eastern Ukraine.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Vladimir Putin, told reporters that the Russian leader had been given constant updates on the operation to capture Avdiivkaa and learned that Russian forces had taken control of the whole town after lunchtime on Saturday.

Before then, Peskov claimed, “the enemy had already started to flee en masse from Avdiivka”, without offering any evidence.

“At the moment our president is hearing a report from the minister of defence and the chief of our general staff that our units are continuing their offensive and not letting the enemy secure new heights,” Peskov added.

Russia’s defence ministry said on Sunday Moscow’s forces controlled the entire city and had advanced the front lines by 8.6km.

Ukraine’s units have found themselves outgunned on the frontline in recent months as talks stall in Congress over a promised $60bn aid package, which is opposed by likely Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump.

As the second anniversary of Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine approaches, Biden told reporters at the weekend that he had called Zelenskyy “to let him know I’m confident we’re going to get that money” and said he would not stop pushing to pass the bill even after Congress went into a two-week recess.

“There’s so much on the line,” Biden said after the call. “The idea that now we’re running out of ammunition — to walk away, I find it absurd. I find it unethical. So I’m going to fight to get them the ammunition they need.”

US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said at the weekend: “This is the cost of congressional inaction. The Ukrainians continue to fight bravely, but they are running low on supplies. It is critical that the House approve additional Ukraine funding without delay.”

Avdiivka’s capture is a major boost for Putin ahead of Russia’s presidential elections next month, where he is certain to extend his 24 years in office until at least 2030.

Though all of his opponents have been struck from the ballot or are in exile or prison — where his most prominent opponent Alexei Navalny died on Friday — the victory in Avdiivka bolsters Putin’s argument that western support for Ukraine is fading.

“For them [the Ukraine conflict is] a way to improve their tactical standing, and for us it’s fate, it’s a matter of life and death,” Putin said in an interview recorded earlier this week and broadcast on state television on Sunday.

Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and deputy chair of Russia’s security council, wrote on social media on Sunday that Moscow would resort to nuclear war to defend its conquests.

“Attempts to return Russia to its 1991 borders,” when the Soviet Union collapsed, “will only lead to one thing. To a global war with western countries in which we use all the strategic arsenal of our state. Against Kyiv, Berlin, London, Washington,” Medvedev wrote.

“Better they give everything back before it’s too late. Or we will take it back ourselves with maximum casualties for the enemy. Like Avdiivka.”

The four-month battle for Avdiivka has largely razed the city, which has been on the front lines since Putin first invaded Ukraine in 2014.

It also followed a week of harrowing social media posts by Ukrainian soldiers warning they were surrounded as safe passage out of the town narrowed to a strip.

Dmytro Lykhoviy, spokesperson for Ukraine’s south-eastern sector, said on Sunday that the evacuation of Ukrainian troops from Avdiivka was complete.

But at least some wounded soldiers appear to have been left behind and are likely to have been taken prisoner.

Ukrainian investigative journalism collective Slidstvo shared a video call between a mother and her injured son in Avdiivka who said he’d been abandoned along with six others. Slidstvo claimed the men had since been detained by Russian forces. 

The toll of Ukraine’s four-month defence of the town could be seen in a video from outside Avdiivka posted by the third assault brigade — one of the forces defending the city — where shell-shocked and bleeding men were being treated.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, Zelenskyy blamed lack of munitions for the defeat and called on western countries to send more military aid to Ukraine.

“Our dear friends are unfortunately keeping Ukraine in an artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in artillery and long-range capabilities . . . This self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results,” he said.

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