KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — France’s defense minister arrived in Kyiv on Wednesday to discuss further military support for Ukraine, insisting the French government’s backing is unflagging while efforts are made to reach an eventual negotiated end to Russia’s invasion.
French Minister for the Armed Forces Sebastien Lecornu traveled to Ukraine’s capital after a trip to Poland, where he announced a deal Tuesday to sell Poland two French-made military satellites.
In Kyiv, Lecornu laid a wreath at a heroes’ monument to pay homage to Ukrainians who have died defending their country against Russia’s invasion. He was scheduled to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov and army officials.
While France has been less vocal about its military support for Ukraine than the United States and Britain, the country has sent a steady supply of weapons to Ukraine since Russia invaded on Feb. 24.
France also hosted two aid conferences for Ukraine this month. But many in Ukraine remain critical of the French government’s response to the war because of President Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to maintain contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin and seek a negotiated solution.
“Our support for Ukraine has been constant,” Lecornu tweeted ahead of his trip.
It was not immediately clear what concrete deals Lecornu’s talks in Kyiv might produce. He came to Ukraine a week after Zelenskyy visited the U.S., Ukraine’s chief ally, and with the fighting focused mostly in the country’s east but neither Moscow nor Kyiv reporting major gains in recent weeks.
While both Russia and Ukraine have said they were willing to participate in peace talks, their stated conditions remain far apart. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov reiterated Wednesday that any peace plan must acknowledge four regions of Ukraine that Russia illegally annexed as Russian territory, a demand that Kyiv flatly rejects.
Russian forces have pressed their offensive to capture all of eastern Ukraine by concentrating in recent weeks on Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk province. Ukrainian forces were pushing a counteroffensive toward Kreminna, a city in neighboring Luhansk province, in hopes of reclaiming the area and potentially dividing Russia’s troops in the east.
France has supplied Ukraine with a substantial chunk of its arsenal of Caesar cannons, as well as anti-tank missiles, Crotale air defense missile batteries and rocket launchers. It is also training some 2,000 Ukrainian troops on French soil. Macron pledged last week to provide a new injection of weapons in early 2023.
Western military aid to Ukraine has angered Moscow. On Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Washington and NATO of fueling the war with the aim to weaken Russia and warned the conflict could spin out of control.
Also on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree banning oil exports to countries that support a $60-per-barrel price cap that was declared by the European Union and Group of Seven countries in a bid to reduce Moscow’s revenue during wartime. The ban takes effect in February and is slated to run through July.
The price cap is higher than what Russian oil has sold for in recent weeks, so the potential effects of Putin’s ban are uncertain.
Russia invaded Ukraine 10 months ago, alleging a threat to its security orchestrated by NATO. The war has killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions so far, with an end nowhere in sight.
Russian attacks on power stations and other infrastructure have left millions of Ukrainians without heating and electricity for hours or days at a time.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said in its analysis published early Wednesday that Russian efforts to take Bakhmut “may be nearing culmination” due to combat losses and degrading equipment.”
Russian advances likely will decrease “if Russian forces continue advancing at all, unless significant new reinforcements and supplies of artillery rounds arrive soon,” the analysis said.
The latest Russian shelling has wounded at least eight civilians, including three in Bakhmut, the Donetsk region’s governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said.
In the southern region of Kherson, Russian shelling hit a maternity hospital soon after two women delivered babies there, although Ukrainian officials said no one was wounded there. Regional Gov. Yaroslav Yanyshevych said the shelling also damaged apartment buildings, a kindergarten and a bakery.
Zelenskyy’s office later reported that shelling of a riverfront village in the area wounded three civilians, including a 14-year-old.
The British Defense Ministry said in its daily assessment Tuesday that Russia has likely reinforced its front line near Kreminna as its forces come under continued pressure from the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russia will likely prioritize holding the line in the logistically important area, the ministry said.
Ukraine’s foreign minister told The Associated Press this week that his government would like to see a peace conference by the end of February. Ukraine has said in the past that it wouldn’t negotiate with Russia before the full withdrawal of its troops, while Moscow insists its military gains and the 2014 annexation of the Crimean Peninsula cannot be ignored.
Asked about Ukraine’ intention to hold a February summit under the U.N.’s aegis, Kremlin spokesman Peskov said any peace plan could only proceed from the assumption of Russia’s sovereignty over the illegally annexed areas of Ukraine.
“There isn’t any peace plan by Ukraine yet,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters. “And there can’t be any Ukrainian peace plan that fails to take into account today’s realities regarding the Russian territory, the incorporation of the new four regions into Russia. Any plan that fails to acknowledge these realities can’t be considered a peace plan.”