From the left, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, French President Emmanuel Macron, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna and President of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen attend the conference in solidarity with the Ukrainian people in Paris, Tuesday, Dec.13 2022. (Teresa Suarez, Pool via AP)
PARIS — Dozens of countries and international organizations threw their weight and more than 1 billion euros (dollars) in aid pledges behind an urgent new push Tuesday to keep Ukraine powered, fed, warm and moving amid the onset of winter.
An international donor conference in Paris quickly racked up substantial promises of financial and in-kind support, a defiant response to sustained Russian aerial bombardments that have plunged millions of Ukrainian civilians into the deepening cold and dark by targeting critical infrastructure.
Ukraine’s president made an impassioned argument that such aid could pressure Russia into pursuing peace, and conference donors strongly condemned the Kremlin’s savaging of power stations, water facilities and other essential services in Ukraine.
French President Emmanuel Macron, the conference host, denounced Moscow’s bombardments of civilian targets as war crimes. He said the Kremlin is pounding civilian infrastructure because its troops suffered setbacks on the battlefields and their “military weaknesses have been exposed to all.”
Russia “has chosen a cynical strategy, aiming to destroy civilian infrastructure in order to put Ukraine on its knees,” Macron said. “The objective is clear: Respond to military defeats by spreading terror among civilians, try to break the back as it can’t maintain the front.”
As temperatures plunge and snow falls, Ukraine’s needs are huge and pressing. Russia has repeatedly targeted the Ukrainian power grid and other critical infrastructure since early October. Successive waves of cruise missiles and exploding drones have destroyed about half of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, the Kyiv government has said.
Ukraine’s prime minister says Russia is trying to create a fresh wave of refugees to Europe. Russia says that by striking civilian infrastructure, its military aim is to weaken Ukraine’s ability to defend itself and to disrupt flows of Western weapons to the country it attacked in February. The full-scale invasion has left many tens of thousands of people dead or injured and forced an estimated 6.5 million Ukrainians from their homes.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who addressed the Paris conference by video link, said some 12 million Ukrainians — roughly one-quarter of the country’s pre-invasion population — are living with power outages stemming from Russian bombardments.
Zelenskyy argued that a concerted international effort to keep Ukraine’s utility systems working could help dissuade Moscow from further attacks and potentially force it to the negotiating table, and also prevent new waves of Ukrainians fleeing to elsewhere in Europe.
“Russia will have to think about how to stop the aggression,” Zelenskyy said. “Energy is one of the keys to this.”
In presenting a long list of immediate needs, Zelenskyy said Ukraine requires electricity generators as urgently as it also needs armored vehicles and armored vests for its troops.
Donors came to the conference armed with an array of help, from lightbulbs, generators and power transformers to assistance with food, water, health, transport and rebuilding. France’s Foreign Ministry said a total of 1.05 billion euros — the equivalent of US$1.1 billion — in financial and in-kind aid was pledged, all of it expected to reach Ukraine over the toughest winter months before April. The total included 125 million euros ($131 million) worth of assistance from host France.
The European Union’s chief executive, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, announced funding for the purchase of 30 million energy-saving light bulbs that Ukraine requested to reduce pressure on its power grid.
Von der Leyen said the Russian missile and drone bombardments were intended to sap Ukrainian morale but added: “Russia will fail because the Ukrainian spirit remains unyielding and unbroken.”
Without reliable power and other essential services, life for many is becoming a battle for survival.
“Globally, we need everything,” said Yevhen Kaplin, who heads Proliska, a Ukrainian humanitarian group providing cooking stoves, blankets and other aid to front-line regions and away from the battlefields.
With “the shelling, the missiles strikes and strikes on the infrastructure, we can’t say whether there will be gas tomorrow, we can’t predict whether to buy gas stoves or not,” he said. “Every day the picture changes.”
The Paris meeting — attended by 46 countries and 24 international organizations — also was putting in place a system to coordinate international aid for the winter so donors of equipment and other aid don’t double-up. A web-based platform will enable Ukraine to list its civilian aid needs and allow donors to show what they’ll supply in response.
Sweden was among the first nations attending the meeting to pledge more aid. Its foreign trade minister, Johan Forssell, announced a contribution of 55 million euros ($58 million) for humanitarian aid and the rebuilding of schools, hospitals and energy infrastructure.
As winter bites, “we need to do whatever we can to help improve conditions in Ukraine and also help them to fight off the Russian invaders,” he said. “We’re here for them as long as it takes.”
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