As the West increases arms shipments to Ukraine, worries grow about the reaction in Russia

The war in Ukraine is accelerating in the eastern Donbas region. On Tuesday, as ministers from dozens of nations met in Germany to coordinate their efforts to arm Ukraine, American leaders changed their tone, from one of just helping Ukraine fend off Russia, to helping them defeat and weaken Russia for the long term. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The war in Ukraine is accelerating in the eastern Donbass region.

    Today, as ministers from dozens of nations met in Germany to coordinate their efforts to send more arms to Ukraine, American leaders changed their tone from one of just helping Ukraine fend off Russia to helping them defeat and weaken Russia for the long term.

    Nick Schifrin reports.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the open fields of Ukraine's eastern Donbass, today, Ukrainian soldiers take aim at Russian positions along the ridge. This terrain will help determine the war's fate, as Russian tanks try and take advantage of flat land to break through outgunned Ukrainian lines.

    Llyod Austin, U.S. Secretary of Defense: This gathering reflects the galvanized world.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That's what the U.S. and more than 40 countries meeting today in Germany are trying to prevent.

    Senior U.S. military officials fear time is not on Ukraine's side. They're trying to accelerate arms shipments. And Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin today said the U.S. was targeting Russia's military with a long-term goal.

  • Llyod Austin:

    We would like to make sure, again, that they don't have the same type of capability to bully their neighbors that we — that we saw at the outset of this conflict.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To target Russians in the Donbass, the U.S. is sending more American artillery systems and rounds to supplement the Soviet era artillery that Ukraine currently uses.

    Mike Vickers, Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence: The fight in the east is really open terrain. And, first and foremost, it will be an artillery duel.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Mike Vickers is a former undersecretary of defense for intelligence and CIA officer who helped design the 1980s Afghan resistance against a much larger Soviet occupation force. He says Ukraine needs and the West is providing more Russian-made air defense systems and handheld American drones that can identify and target Russian soldiers and tanks.

  • Mike Vickers:

    If this is a protracted conflict, we're going to need to continue to supply the Ukrainians. That's easier to do with Western and U.S. weapons.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But, so far, the Biden administration has resisted calls to provide more advanced rocket systems whose range is long enough to reach inside Russia.

  • Mike Vickers:

    Rocket systems give you a higher volume of fire. And then outraging your opponent or at least being able to arrange like he can is a good thing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Do you think that the U.S. is doing enough in order to allow Ukraine victory, which is a word that Ukrainian and increasingly U.S. officials are using?

  • Mike Vickers:

    I think we're getting there. Time is really of the essence here in this eastern battle.

    And I think we lost three to four weeks that we might have started this supply and trained earlier than we have, but we just need to put pedal to metal right now.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Ukraine also needs more NATO-supplied tanks. And, today, Germany agreed for the first time to ride its tanks in what Defense minister Christine Lambrecht has called a generational shift.

  • Christine Lambrecht, German Defense Minister (through translator):

    The point is that the support for Ukraine should now be provided quickly, that it should be effective, and, above all, that it should be coordinated with our allied partners.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Russia has made clear arming Ukraine carries risks, including nuclear war, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov mentioned on state TV.

  • Sergey Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister (through translator):

    The risks are really very, very significant. I would very much not like these risks be artificially inflated, and there are many who want them. The danger is serious, it is real, and it cannot be underestimated.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But it was Russia who nearly created a nuclear crisis in Ukraine. Today, International Atomic Energy Agency officials got their first look at Chernobyl since Russian forces occupied the site and then left.

    Director General Rafael Grossi paid respects to those who died when the reactor exploded 36 years ago today and called recent Russian moves very dangerous.

  • Rafael Grossi, Director General, IAEA:

    What we had was a nuclear safety situation that was not normal that could have developed into an accident.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In Europe, an energy crisis is already developing.

    Russian energy giant Gazprom today notified Poland and Bulgaria it would cut off natural gas supplies tomorrow, after the countries refused to pay for the gas in rubles. Prices spike 17 percent.

    But Polish Strategic Energy Infrastructure Minister Piotr Naimski said Warsaw was already transitioning away from Russian energy.

  • Piotr Naimskisi, Polish Strategic Energy Infrastructure Minister (through translator):

    This is a turning point that has been accelerated by the Russians today. The Russians are speeding it up, but we can handle it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Meanwhile, in Moscow, 20 feet apart, President Vladimir Putin met with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The U.N. says Putin agreed — quote — "in principle" to allow civilians to leave their final holdout in Mariupol, the sprawling Azovstal plant.

    That's where civilians like this woman today are still trapped by Russians forcing the population to submit or starve. Those tactics have pushed millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes. Today, the U.N. predicted 8.3 million, nearly 20 percent of the country, would become refugees, the victims of a war that even U.S. weapons can't end.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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