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Defense secretary says U.S. arms being put to ‘good use’ in Ukraine

Ukrainian military is challenging Russian forces in south and east, but strikes on civilians continue

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, left, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a Senate subcommittee hearing on May 3. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)
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Pentagon officials on Tuesday praised Ukraine’s use of weapons supplied by the United States and its allies as European leaders signaled fresh support for the embattled country amid continued Russian attacks.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of U.S. senators that several hundred Ukrainian troops had been pulled out of the country to be trained in how to use new weapons systems sent by Washington.

They have since returned to the front lines, where they are putting their supply of howitzers and drones “to very good use,” Austin said at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

The Ukrainian troops are embroiled in fierce fighting in the south and east, where U.S. officials say Russia is struggling to advance militarily but is planning to annex vast swaths of land in the coming days. The Kremlin continued to shell Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant Tuesday even as some civilians were evacuated, Ukrainian officials said. Russian missile strikes pounded the relatively safe western city of Lviv, damaging infrastructure.

The United States, alongside its allies, has been feeding weaponry to Ukrainian forces through Eastern Europe as part of a coordinated effort with its NATO allies. U.S. airmen have completed dozens of missions to deliver a cache of weapons to Eastern Europe — including Javelin and Stinger missile systems and 155-millimeter howitzers — since the war began in February.

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In Alabama on Tuesday, President Biden visited a Lockheed Martin Javelin factory, where he praised workers for their support in arming Ukraine and promoted his push for an additional $33 billion in aid for Kyiv. Biden said Ukrainians “are making fools of the Russian military in many instances.” He described the nearly 10-week-old invasion as an “ongoing battle in the world between autocracy and democracy.”

On Capitol Hill, Austin did not rule out the possibility that the Ukrainian forces could be hoarding U.S.-made weaponry instead of sending it directly to the front lines. He pledged to raise the issue with senior Ukrainian officials on a weekly basis.

With no U.S. forces on the ground, there were challenges tracking how the weapons were being deployed and transported, he said. But “the report that we get back from the senior leadership routinely is that it is getting to where it needs to go,” he said.

European leaders continued to show their support for Ukraine on Tuesday. Britain announced it is preparing to ship a fleet of 13 armored vehicles and logistics staffers to bolster evacuation efforts, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson became the first foreign leader to address the Ukrainian parliament since the invasion on Feb. 24.

“Ukraine will win. Ukraine will be free,” Johnson, speaking remotely, told lawmakers gathered in Kyiv.

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French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin for the first time in more than a month, warning that France stands ready to help offset a Russian blockade on Ukrainian food exports via the Black Sea. Macron urged Moscow to pull back from its offensive and allow the unfettered evacuation of those trapped in Mariupol’s steel plant “in accordance with international humanitarian law,” the Élysée Palace said.

The first group of evacuees from the plant reached Ukrainian-controlled territory Tuesday after a harrowing journey that was repeatedly stalled by fighting along its route. They were met by aid workers, doctors and officials who have set up an encampment to receive those fleeing areas across the region.

Mariupol’s mayor said 101 civilians remain in the plant, besieged by Russian forces that now hold near-complete control of the city.

Russian troops made fresh attempts to storm the plant Tuesday. Two civilians were killed in the shelling attack and hundreds were sheltering in bunkers below the structure, the head of the regional police, Mykhailo Vershynin, told The Washington Post.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said 156 civilians successfully fled on Tuesday to Zaporizhzhia, the Ukrainian-controlled city where the Mariupol evacuees arrived in a convoy of buses.

“They have been in shelters for more than two months. Just imagine,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address, which included a scathing critique of Russian forces. “For example, a child is 6 months old, two of which are underground, fleeing bombs and shelling. Finally, these people are completely safe.”

“They are trying to vent their powerlessness,” he said of the Russian forces. “Because they can’t beat Ukraine.”

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Overall, at least 21 civilians were killed in the eastern region of Donetsk on Tuesday, 10 of them at a fuel plant in Avdiivka, Donetsk’s regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Telegram.

He said the civilian death toll — which could not be independently verified — was the highest in the Donetsk region for a single day since April 8, when a Russian missile struck a train station in Kramatorsk and killed at least 50.

At the same time, Ukrainian forces successfully defended against about a dozen attacks in the southeast over the past day, according to Serhiy Haidai, head of the Luhansk regional administration, and an update from the Ukrainian Defense Ministry.

Haidai said the onslaught had left Luhansk’s residential areas “in ruins,” with about 100,000 people without electricity as well as widespread disruptions to the water supply. Evacuations were “complicated by shelling,” he said. Many were unwilling to evacuate, he said, though 49 civilians managed to leave the region Tuesday.

While most of the fighting is now contained in Ukraine’s south and east, missile strikes pounded the western city of Lviv, cutting power and disrupting the water supply. The region’s leaders urged residents to take shelter as air raid sirens sounded over the city, which is less than 50 miles from the Polish border.

Lviv, home to a cobblestoned historic district that is a UNESCO World Heritage site, has become a hub for foreign diplomats, aid organizations and journalists because of its relative safety. It has largely been spared the Russian attacks that have pummeled other parts of the country but suffered its first wartime deaths last month, when missile strikes on a military warehouse and commercial service station killed at least seven and injured 11.

On Monday, the top U.S. diplomat for Ukraine, Kristina Kvien, announced the resumption of some embassy activity on a day trip to Lviv — her first visit to Ukraine since the war began.

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German Chancellor Olaf Scholz warned on Tuesday, during comments alongside his Swedish and Finnish counterparts, that there is no guarantee Russia will not invade other countries after its operation in Ukraine.

He said Russia’s actions in Ukraine made it clear Moscow has the potential to cross other borders “by force on another occasion.”

Russia, which has accused the West of waging a proxy war against Moscow, ramped up its rhetoric Tuesday with propagandist and close Putin ally Dmitry Kiselyov floating the idea of a hypothetical nuclear attack on the “British Isles” during a state media program.

“Another option is to plunge Britain to the depths of the sea using Russia’s unmanned underwater vehicle Poseidon,” Kiselyov said, suggesting the elimination of Ireland and Britain.

Loveluck reported from Zaporizhzhia. Allam reported from Lviv. David Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine; Reis Thebault, Brittany Shammas, Dan Lamothe, Herman Wong and Timothy Bella in Washington; Ellen Francis, Karla Adam and Annabelle Timsit in London; Rick Noack in Paris; and Amar Nadhir in Bucharest, Romania, contributed to this report.

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