KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — NATO allies and partner countries have delivered more than 98% of the combat vehicles promised to Ukraine during Russia’s invasion and war, the military alliance’s chief said Thursday, giving Kyiv a bigger punch as it contemplates launching a counteroffensive.
Along with more than 1,550 armored vehicles, 230 tanks and other equipment, Ukraine’s allies have sent “vast amounts of ammunition” and also trained and equipped more than nine new Ukrainian brigades, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said.
More than 30,000 troops are estimated to make up the new brigades. Some NATO partner countries, such as Sweden and Australia, have also provided armored vehicles.
“This will put Ukraine in a strong position to continue to retake occupied territory,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.
His comments came a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping held a “long and meaningful” phone call in their first known contact since Russia’s full-scale invasion more than a year ago.
Though Zelenskyy said he was encouraged by Wednesday’s call and Western officials welcomed Xi’s move, it didn’t appear to improve peace prospects.
Russia and Ukraine are far apart in their terms for peace, and Beijing — while looking to position itself as a global diplomatic power — has refused to criticize Moscow’s invasion. The Chinese government sees Russia as a diplomatic ally in opposing U.S. influence in global affairs, and Xi visited Moscow last month.
Stoltenberg said the 31 NATO allies were committed to shoring up Ukraine’s military, adding that taking back land the Kremlin’s forces occupied would give Kyiv a stronger negotiating position if peace talks occur.
Ukrainian officials said China’s overture was encouraging. Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal on Thursday described the call between Xi and Zelenskyy as “very productive.”
“I’m convinced it is a good beginning for our relations in the future,″ Shmyhal said after visiting Pope Francis at the Vatican.
But the Kremlin’s response was lukewarm.
Asked if the call could help end the fighting, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “We are ready to welcome anything that could lead to the termination of the conflict in Ukraine and the achievement of all the goals set by Russia.”
Peskov said the conversation between the Chinese and Ukrainian leaders was “the sovereign business of those countries and the issue of their bilateral dialogue.”
With battlefield positions in Ukraine largely static in what’s become a war of attrition, Russian forces have kept up their bombardment of Ukrainian areas, often hitting apartment buildings and other civilian infrastructure.
At least seven civilians were killed and 33 were injured between Wednesday and Thursday, Ukraine’s presidential office said Thursday.
They included one person killed and 23 wounded, including a child, when four Kalibr cruise missiles hit the southern city of Mykolaiv, a regional official said. The governor of Mykolaiv province, Vitalii Kim, said 22 multi-story buildings, 12 private houses and other residential buildings were damaged.
Kalibr missiles are launched from ships or submarines, The ones that hit Mykolaiv were fired from the Black Sea, according to Ukraine’s Operational Command South.
In other developments:
— Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing the deportation from annexed Ukrainian territories of residents who refuse to become Russian citizens. Starting in July of next year, Russia will consider such residents to be foreigners who can be expelled from territory that Russian authorities consider to be Russian. Putin annexed four Ukrainian regions last September, building on his 2014 annexation of Crimea. Many countries have condemned the moves as illegal.
— Putin, who has often dwelt on history and his interpretation of it to advance his policy views, ordered his government on Thursday to prepare public studies about what he calls his “special military operation” in Ukraine. The effort is to include museums, adding to an announcement by one of his ministers that new school textbooks discussing the military operation are to be introduced in September.
— The head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group repeated claims that the Russian military is withholding ammunition from his soldiers, who are leading the fight in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the war’s bloodiest battle. In social media posts, Yevgeny Prigozhin said without providing specifics that “a criminal group did not give us ammunition,” forcing his fighters to do whatever they can with a “minimal quantity of ammunition.” Prigozhin claimed ammunition stockpiles are withheld because of “treason” by Russian officials, whom he described as “thugs.”
___ Cook reported from Brussels. Associated Press Writer Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Frances D’Emilio in Rome contributed. ___ Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine