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Biden promises Kyiv air defense systems, UN debates annexation

President Joe Biden ordered the delivery of even more air defense systems to Ukraine following Moscow's severe bombardment on Monday. Meanwhile, the United Nations debated the legality of Russia's attempt to annex four Ukrainian regions.

(CN) — In the wake of Russia's massive bombing of Ukrainian cities and infrastructure on Monday, U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to send Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy advanced air defense systems while American officials sought to exert global pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin at a United Nations General Assembly meeting.

The war in Ukraine is quickly escalating following an alleged truck bomb attack by Ukrainian agents that seriously damaged the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting Crimea with Russia. At 12 miles in length, it is the longest bridge in Europe and a feat of engineering and fused with political symbolism for Putin.

The bridge was completed in 2018 with the Kremlin declaring it a major show of Russian commitment to Crimea, a peninsula that Putin annexed in 2014 following a Western-backed insurrection that toppled the government of pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Today's total war in Ukraine has its roots in those 2014 events which sparked clashes between pro-Western and pro-Russian factions of Ukrainian society and an armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Yanukovych was elected fairly, but he caused widespread anger in parts of Ukraine for scrapping a deal to bring the country closer to the European Union. He was driven from office following violent protests. After a vehemently pro-Western and pro-NATO government was installed in Kyiv, Putin ordered his troops to seize control of Crimea, a peninsula with a majority of Russian speakers and ethnic Russians. Critically, the peninsula is also home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet.

The hit on the Kerch Bridge hurts Russia's war efforts because the bridge serves as a main artery for military supplies. The Kremlin has vowed to repair the heavy damage caused by a gigantic explosion.

Putin declared the attack an “act of terrorism” and on Monday launched a furious barrage of rockets and war drones at Ukrainian cities, command centers and power plants. Russian rockets continued to be fired Tuesday on Ukrainian targets, including power substations in western Ukraine.

Monday's massive assault – the worst Russian aerial bombing yet in the war – caused power to be knocked out in many parts of Ukraine. Also hit were administrative parts in the city center of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. At least 14 people were killed and more than 80 wounded, according to Ukrainian officials.

In response, Biden said the United States will furnish Zelenskyy's military with advanced air defense systems to give Ukraine greater capacity to shoot down future rocket attacks. The U.S. has already sent Ukraine $16.8 billion in aid and provided crucial intelligence, advice and training to Ukrainian forces, though the White House and NATO have refused to send troops to Ukraine to avoid a direct conflict with Russia. Russian officials, though, have already declared the war over Ukraine a NATO-Russia conflict.

On Tuesday, Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said the delivery of air defense systems to Ukraine would not change Russia's military goals and just prolong combat.

Germany, meanwhile, sent its Iris-T air defense systems to Kyiv on Tuesday, another step towards Berlin's growing involvement in a war that seems to have become an existential conflict for all sides involved.

European and American leaders increasingly talk about how they cannot allow Putin to be victorious in Ukraine because that would open the door to even more aggression by Russia and other powers eyeing territorial conquests.

In New York City, the U.S. is pushing to get the United Nations General Assembly to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine. The U.N. debate is set to become a moment of clarity because it will show the willingness by non-Western states, such as China and India, to take sides in a conflict with global ramifications.

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The U.N. assembly is scheduled to vote later this week on a draft resolution condemning the Kremlin's attempt to annex four Ukrainian regions in the country's east and south. Most countries are expected to not recognize Russia's annexations, but the wording of the draft resolution and the tone of speeches or lack of speeches by some nations will be closely watched and provide an indication of the world's mood in regards to a war that's put Russia and the West on a dangerous collision course. The war is also driving up energy and commodity prices globally and causing unrest in many parts of the world, including the West.

Already, though, there are signs that global opinion remains divided with many developing countries refusing to back Western sanctions on Russia. For example, on Monday 107 out of the assembly's 193 member countries voted against a Russian request to hold a secret ballot on the annexation, meaning 86 nations preferred keeping their vote hidden. Russia vetoed a similar resolution in the 15-member U.N. Security Council.

During Monday's U.N. meeting, Vassily Nebenzia, Russia's ambassador to the world body, argued that the pending vote will sow more discord.

“What does this have to do with peace and security or trying to settle conflicts?” Nebenzia said. He called it “yet one more step towards division and escalation, which I'm sure is not something the absolute majority of states in this room need.”

Ukraine's U.N. Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya said the world must defend the principles of the U.N. Charter.

“A trail of blood is left behind the Russian delegation when it enters the General Assembly and the hall is filled up with the smell of smoldering human flesh,” he said. “That's what we have tolerated in Syria. That's what is happening today in Ukraine.”

But many developing nations remain unconvinced about American leadership and are not ready to see what Russia is doing as that much different from American bellicosity after decades of U.S.-led wars against Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

On the battlefields of Ukraine, Russian troops are struggling to hold onto the regions Putin wants to add to Russia. Fighting on the front lines continues to rage, though neither side has managed to make significant gains recently.

In early September, Ukraine conducted a successful counter-offensive in Kharkiv, driving out Russian troops from the entirety of the Kharkiv region. That humiliating setback prompted Putin to dig in deeper by ordering the mobilization of 300,000 new troops and declaring the annexations of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.

In Ukraine, work continued Tuesday to patch up the severe damage caused by Russian bombs and bring back the country's power grid. Moscow was able to deliver crippling hits to large power plants across Ukraine and power outages continued to be reported in many areas Tuesday with officials calling on citizens to reduce electricity consumption.

Defiant and furious over the bombardment, Zelenskyy demanded more air defense systems from the West. Ukraine said it shot down about half of the more than 80 rockets Russia fired.

Over the course of the war, Zelenskyy has become more aggressive too after initially pondering the possibility of agreeing to a ceasefire.

In recent months, Zelenskyy has refused to hold negotiations with Putin, called for Russia's economy to be crippled, demanded countries close their borders to Russians and pleaded for more weapons. Last week, Zelenskyy, while speaking to an Australian think tank, said NATO should carry out preemptive strikes on Russia to prevent the “possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons.”

“What should NATO do? Eliminate the possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons,“ Zelenskyy said. “We need preventive strikes, so they know what will happen to them if they use nukes, and not the other way around.”

The risk of the Ukraine conflict escalating into an unthinkable nuclear war has begun to hang over the world.

“We have not faced the prospect of Armageddon since [John F.] Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Biden said last week.

He said such a risk was growing because Putin's “military is – you might say – significantly underperforming.”

His comments came after Ramzan Kadyrov, the head of the Chechen Republic who is effectively a warlord close to Putin, stated on social media that Russia should consider using “low-yield” tactical nuclear weapons. Such weapons include nuclear-tipped mines, small nuclear bombs and other radioactive ordnance. The Soviet Union and the U.S. both developed such weapons, but they have never been used in combat.

Biden said he did not think “there’s any such thing as the ability to easily (use) a tactical nuclear weapon and not end up with Armageddon.”

Despite the frightening rhetoric, most experts remain of the opinion that Putin will not resort to a nuclear attack in Ukraine because its military advantages are doubtful, such an attack could shift global opinion against Russia and also expose Russian troops and civilians to radiation.

Meanwhile, there is growing evidence that the U.S. is becoming more directly involved. The Intercept reported last week that the CIA and U.S. Special Operations teams are becoming more active in Ukraine.

Many top U.S. security experts are urging the White House to deliver even more deadly weapons to Ukraine, such as attack drones and long-distance rockets capable of hitting targets in Crimea and deep inside Russia. Ukraine regularly strikes Russia's border areas, but it wants the ability to strike even farther. American and Ukrainian officials argue that Kyiv can win the war and drive Russia out of Ukraine if it is given better weapons. In July, Ukraine started to turn the war in its favor following the delivery of so-called High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems. HIMARS are mobile systems that shoot guided missiles.

At the same time, Russia may be considering some kind of nuclear demonstration. A week ago, The Times of London reported that Putin ordered a train used to transport nuclear weapons to move toward Ukraine. The newspaper said NATO leaders were warned that Russia may seek to conduct a nuclear test close to Ukraine's borders.

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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