US president Joe Biden pledged to back Ukraine “for as long as it takes” to end Russian aggression that he said had made Nato “more united than ever”, as Kyiv hailed the withdrawal of Moscow’s troops from storied Snake Island in the Black Sea.
Nato said Finland and Sweden would sign protocols to join the alliance next Tuesday, in a move that Russian president Vladimir Putin said would stoke tension in northern Europe, as Moscow warned that a new “iron curtain” was now falling across the continent.
“We are going to stick with Ukraine, and all of the alliance are going to stick with Ukraine, as long as it takes to make sure they are not defeated by Russia,” Mr Biden said after a Nato summit in Madrid.
He said he would soon unveil a new $800 million (€765 million) package of military aid to Kyiv that would include an air defence system, artillery and other heavy weapons, as Ukraine’s troops struggle to hold out against massed Russian firepower in its eastern Donbas region.
After enduring waves of Russian missile strikes in recent days that killed and injured dozens of civilians, Ukraine hailed a victory in the Black Sea as Russian troops abandoned Snake Island near Odesa, reducing the threat of any marine landing near the major port.
Snake Island entered the folklore of the all-out war on its first day, February 24th, when Kyiv released what it said was a recorded exchange between a Russian naval captain and a Ukrainian border guard on the island.
“This is a Russian warship. Lay down your weapons and surrender to avoid bloodshed and unnecessary victims. Otherwise, you will be bombed,” the captain said.
“Russian warship, go f**k yourself,” came the reply, which became a rallying cry and a slogan now emblazoned on countless t-shirts, mugs and posters in Ukraine.
Russia’s defence ministry denied that its troops had been driven off the tiny island, where their positions were repeatedly struck by Ukrainian forces, and called the withdrawal “a gesture of goodwil l… to show the international community that Russia does not hamper UN efforts to create a humanitarian corridor for the export of farm produce from Ukraine.”
Moscow claims that its naval blockade of Ukraine – where some 20 million tonnes of grain are effectively trapped – is not the cause of a mounting global food crisis, and instead blames western sanctions and sea mines allegedly laid by Ukrainian forces near its ports.
As Britain announced a further £1 billion (€1.16 billion) in military aid for Kyiv, its prime minister Boris Johnson said the retaking of Snake Island showed Ukraine’s resolve and that “it will prove impossible for Putin to hold down a country that will not accept his rule.”
After Nato announced plans admit two new Scandinavian members and to sharply strengthen its defences in Europe, Mr Biden said Nato was now “more united than ever. And with the addition to Finland and Sweden, we’ll be stronger than ever.”
Mr Putin said he did not object to them joining Nato, but warned that “if military contingents and infrastructure are deployed there, we will have to respond in kind… Everything was fine between us, but now there might be some tensions, there certainly will. It’s inevitable if there is a threat to us”.
On a visit to Belarus, the dictatorship that is the Kremlin’s closest ally in Europe, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov blamed EU and Nato states for wrecking relations between Moscow and the West, commenting that “as far as an iron curtain is concerned… essentially it is already falling.”