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US, Allies Ramping Up Support for Ukraine

FILE - A German Gepard antiaircraft tank fires during a demonstration about 80 km south east of Hamburg, Germany, June 20, 2007. Germany will authorize the delivery of tanks to Ukraine, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said on April 26, 2022.

The United States and its allies signaled Tuesday they are moving swiftly and powerfully to support Ukrainian forces and escalate pressure on Russia's economy amid its two-month invasion of neighboring Ukraine, while the United Nations said Russia's president agreed to let international aid groups help civilians leave the besieged port city of Mariupol.

The U.S. at first "needed weeks" to move military equipment and munitions to Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday, but it now it often dispatches new armaments to the Ukrainians within three days.

Blinken said since he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv over the weekend, the two countries were "largely aligned in what they say they need and what we think we're able to provide."

Economic strikes

The U.S. and Russia continued to trade economic jabs, with Moscow on Tuesday announcing it would cut off supplies of natural gas to Poland and Bulgaria.

And in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland told Congress that he supported legislation that would allow seized Russian assets to go "directly to Ukraine."

Heavy weapons

Germany's government said Tuesday it would send heavy weapons to Ukraine for the first time. Austin, meeting at a U.S. air base in Germany with officials from 40 countries, including NATO members, said Russian President Vladimir Putin "never imagined the whole world would rally behind Ukraine so swiftly and surely."

"We're seeing more support every day" to combat the Russian invasion, he said Tuesday. "We don't have any time to waste. We've got to move at the speed of war."

The White House said Germany's decision signaled unprecedented unity in the face of Russian aggression.

"The announcement by Germany is in line with announcements we've seen by a number of European countries in providing assistance they have never before provided, which is part of the significance here," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki. "So, this is an unprecedented change to provide lethal aid to another country, and that's the significance here from Germany. But I'd also note that Norway provided Mistral anti-aircraft missiles, that a number of countries have provided types of assistance that they have never done in the past, and that really speaks to the significant unity of NATO."

The U.S. defense secretary also said allies supporting Ukraine would meet monthly to coordinate further aid. As he opened the talks, he said the aim was to "help Ukraine to win the fight against Russia's unjust invasion and to help build up Ukraine for tomorrow's challenges."

Austin also rebuked Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for suggesting that the war could evolve into a nuclear conflict between Russia and the West.

"We certainly will do everything in our power … to make sure it doesn't spin out of control," Austin said. "Nobody wants to see a nuclear war. Nobody can win it," he said, adding that "it's unhelpful and dangerous to rattle sabers" over a nuclear threat.

Austin's appeal to allies for more help for Ukraine came a day after he said the U.S. objective in supporting Ukraine was to leave Russia with a "weakened" military. He described Russian casualties so far as "pretty substantial," with some military analysts saying as many as 20,000 Russian troops have died.

Moscow accused the West of carrying out a proxy war against Russia by sending more munitions to Ukraine and warned of a "considerable" risk that the fighting could evolve into a nuclear conflict.

Diplomatic efforts

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres met Tuesday in Moscow with Putin and Lavrov in an attempt to broker a cease-fire agreement, even as Russia launched new attacks on eastern and southern Ukraine. Guterres then headed to Ukraine, stopping first in Poland to meet with that nation's president in a city along the Ukrainian border used as a base for American troops and humanitarian efforts.

During the two-hour meeting with Guterres in the Russian capital, Putin agreed "in principle" to allow the U.N. and the International Committee of the Red Cross to assist with the evacuation of civilians from the Azovstal iron and steel plant in Mariupol, said Stephane Dujarric, Guterres' spokesman.

The U.N. chief said that while Russia and the U.N. had "different interpretations of what's happening in Ukraine," there was still the possibility for a serious conversation about working to minimize suffering and "end the war as soon as possible."

Guterres said he wanted to further address the wider impacts of the conflict on the world's most vulnerable populations amid rising food and energy prices.

Lavrov welcomed Guterres and the U.N.'s desire for dialogue, while accusing Western governments of flouting principles of multilateralism and instead undertaking a unilateral approach to the world.

Russia's "goals are primarily to protect the civilian population, and here we are ready to cooperate with our colleagues from the U.N. to alleviate the plight of the civilian population," Lavrov said.

But Ukrainian officials say Russian forces have repeatedly blocked the attempted creation of humanitarian corridors to let civilians escape from the devastation of Mariupol.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Putin to agree to direct talks with Zelenskyy. Turkey, which shares a maritime border with Russia and Ukraine, has unsuccessfully attempted to broker an accord to end the fighting.

Also on Tuesday, State Department spokesman Ned Price said American diplomats have taken concrete steps to reestablish a U.S. diplomatic presence in Ukraine.

"I can confirm that the deputy chief of mission and members of the embassy team traveled to Lviv, Ukraine, today, where they were able to continue our close collaboration with key Ukrainian partners," he said. "Today, they met with interlocutors from the Ukrainian Ministry of Foreign Affairs."

While in Kyiv, Blinken and Austin also pledged more military assistance, offering $713 million for Ukraine and 15 partner nations.

"Russia's invasion is indefensible, and so are Russian atrocities," Austin said Tuesday. "We all start today from a position of moral clarity. Russia is waging a war of choice to indulge the ambitions of one man. Ukraine is fighting a war of necessity to defend its democracy, its sovereignty and its citizens."

National security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. Some information came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.