US, Ukrainian leaders Meet in Warsaw as Russia Ramps Up Air Attacks on Ukraine

As Russia ramps up its air campaign on Ukraine, U.S. and Ukrainian leaders met in Warsaw to find ways to fight back Russian aggression.

Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba tweeted a photo on March 26 of U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III meeting with himself and other Ukrainian leaders. “This special 2+2 format allows us to seek practical decisions in both political and defense spheres in order to fortify Ukraine’s ability to fight back Russian aggression,” he said.

The meeting comes after President Joe Biden called a NATO leaders summit, followed by meetings with European and G-7 counterparts, to unite allies and partners in the ongoing sanctions against Russian leaders.

The Pentagon said March 25 that Russia had dug into defensive positions around Kyiv, instead focusing its land and air effort on “liberating” the Donbas region. But Ukraine may have taken back Kherson from Russia and the Ukrainian Navy blew up a re-supply ship at the port of Berdyansk on the Sea of Azov.

Ukraine’s recent moves could drive a wedge in Russia’s effort to lockdown the eastern region of the country, home to a large minority of Russian speakers. Russia has surrounded the port city of Mariupol for days, a missing link that would connect occupied Donbas with Crimea. For weeks, Defense Department officials have pointed to a perceived effort by Russia to lock down the south and pin down Ukrainian forces in the Joint Forces Operation area, where they have operated since Russia invaded in 2014.

“The Donbas is really where they’re … focused right now, on the ground and in the air,” a senior defense official told reporters March 25.

“They have tried to make up for the fact that they haven’t been able to move well on the ground by the increasing use of airstrikes, and missile strikes, and artillery strikes on population centers,” the official added. “They don’t appear to want to pursue Kyiv as aggressively, or frankly, at all.”

Moscow has fired more than 1,250 missiles into Ukraine, and despite reporting about high fail rates for its air-launched cruise missiles and a depleting missile inventory, DOD assesses that Russia still has over half its fire power.

Russia claimed March 25 that its first wartime objective has been achieved.

“The combat potential of the armed forces of Ukraine has been considerably reduced, which makes it possible to focus our core efforts on achieving the main goal—the liberation of Donbass,” Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operational Directorate, said in a statement.

The Defense Department rated Russia’s combat power as 85 to 90 percent of its pre-positioned strength. Recent DOD assessments of Ukraine’s combat power were estimated at 90 percent, based on constant replenishment from Western partners.

The defense official said parts of the $800 million defense package signed by President Joe Biden March 16 have started arriving in Ukraine, with additional shipments of anti-tank Javelins and anti-aircraft Stingers arriving in Europe in the coming days.

“Another flight arrived in the region today,” the defense official said in response to a question from Air Force Magazine.

Long-range air defense systems promised by Biden in a public address following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s speech to Congress have yet to arrive. Likewise, after the U.S. rejected an offer by Poland March 8 to help transfer MiG-29s, the official clarified that “the United States is not putting a veto on people giving the Ukrainians aircraft.”

Even without the SAMS and aircraft it says it needs, Ukraine is still holding off the Russian advance.

Ukraine appears to be making headway in the south of the country, where Russian forces moving north from Crimea made their strongest advance and took the city of Kherson early in the month-long war.

“Kherson is actually contested territory again,” the official said.

Losing Kherson would split Russian forces and hinder an attack on Odesa. Russia also suffered a blow in another city it controls in the south, the port city of Berdyansk, where a Russian warship that had been resupplying troops was blown up pier side by the Ukrainian Navy.

DOD asserted that the Russian aim in the east could be motivated by an effort to consolidate gains, unless they are undone.

“They are putting their priorities and their effort in the east of Ukraine. And that’s where still, there remains a lot of heavy fighting,” the official said. “We think they are trying to … secure some sort of more substantial gains there as a potential negotiating tactic at the table.”