A delegation of about 50 U.S. lawmakers participated at the opening of the three-day annual Munich Security Conference to affirm bipartisan support for U.S. aid to Ukraine. Four delegations of Democratic and Republican leaders and members of the Senate and House joined hundreds of politicians, military officers and diplomats from around the world at the event.
The U.S. delegation there is one of the largest since the creation of the conference in 1963, U.S. officials said. The Russian invasion on Ukraine has fortified the NATO alliance and the European Union, and it has unified U.S. congressional members.
"We are here to send a clear message to this conference and everyone around the world: the U.S. is on a bipartisan basis totally behind the effort of help Ukraine," Mitch McConnell, the Democratic-controlled Senate's Republican minority leader, told Reuters after meeting with conservative German politicians.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pressing President Joe Biden directly to send F-16 warplanes to Ukraine. Five House members argued in a letter sent Thursday to Biden and obtained by Politico that modern jets that Kyiv has sought, but the administration has so far not agreed to, "could prove decisive for control of Ukrainian airspace this year."
"The provision of such aircraft is necessary to help Ukraine protect its airspace, particularly in light of renewed Russian offensives and considering the expected increase in large-scale combat operations," the lawmakers wrote.
The letter was composed by Maine Democrat Jared Golden. Also signing on were Democrats Jason Crow of Colorado and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, and Republicans Tony Gonzales of Texas and Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin.
The lawmakers contend that either the Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-16 or something similar would give Ukrainian forces greater capability than ground-based artillery provided by the U.S. and other nations.
Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Colonel Yuriy Ignat told VOA's Myroslava Gongadze that "modern multipurpose fighter jets are urgently needed to obtain advantages in the air and land fire support of Ukraine's troops.
“Given that the F-16 is one of the most common multirole aircraft in the world, which can engage both ground and air targets with a wide range of weapons, this aircraft is the most likely candidate for the progressive rearmament of the air force of Ukraine to this type of fighter," he said.
Ignat added that these aircraft would become part of Ukraine's air defense, as they are capable of effectively destroying enemy cruise missiles and Iranian attack drones.
"We have dozens of pilots with the appropriate level of training and knowledge of the English language," he noted.
Ukrainian soldiers are pleading for more weapons as they fight to hold off a Russian offensive on the small eastern city of Bakhmut. Russian rockets and artillery pummeled a residential district in the city on Thursday, killing three men and two women and wounding nine, Ukraine's prosecutor general said, adding it was being investigated as a war crime.
Nearly one year into the invasion, President Vladimir Putin's troops are intensifying assaults in the east. The Ukrainian government has urged all remaining residents in the city to leave, as heavy fighting is expected to continue.
Russian troops have been trying to take Bakhmut for months, and the city, which once had 70,000 inhabitants, is under virtually constant shelling.
"If you are rational, law-abiding and patriotic citizens, you should leave the city immediately," said Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. She made the appeal via the Telegram messaging app Friday, to what is believed to be about 6,000 people still in the city, which is in the Donetsk region.
Vereshchuk said those who stay would endanger themselves and their families, but also hinder the work of those who are trying to help them, such as the defense and security forces or volunteers.
Speaking at the opening of the three-day Munich Security Conference via video link, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged allies to speed up weapons deliveries to Ukraine in preparation of an anticipated spring Russian offensive.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, whose own government has faced criticism over slow weapons deliveries to Ukraine, also prodded NATO allies to speed tank deliveries to Kyiv after Germany committed to ship its Leopard 2 vehicles.
And the Pentagon announced that the first group of Ukrainian soldiers being trained by the United States in Germany are completing their program, clearing the way for a second contingent to begin its instruction.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited the vast, hilly training terrain in Grafenwoehr, Germany, on Friday.
"Secretary Austin was impressed with the sense of urgency and progress that's been made to date to rapidly and effectively implement the training program and the high motivation of U.S. trainers and Ukrainian soldiers involved," Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said.
The departing group of Ukrainians numbers about 635 individuals, while the second group is about 710, he said.
In a visit punctuated by M-16 rifle fire, Austin was briefed about the various training programs, met with U.S. and Ukrainian troops, and he observed training on M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicles, M109 Paladin artillery, and combat medical skills.
The training site at Grafenwoehr has been used by the U.S. military for training since the end of World War II.
The war's toll on Russian forces has been significant, British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update on Ukraine, asserting the Russian Defense Ministry and its private contractor have likely suffered 175,000 to 200,000 casualties since the beginning of the invasion, with about 40,000 to 60,000 killed, representing "a high ratio of personnel killed."
Additionally, the update said the Wagner Group's convict recruits have "probably experienced a casualty rate of up to 50%."
According to Defense Weekly, former Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, an opponent of Putin, said the war is likely to continue as long as Putin is in power.
The war in Ukraine had cause deep divisions within Russia, he said, and "active support" for the war is low.
Khodorkovsky, now based in London, oversaw Yukos Oil company. He spent several years in a prison camp after being convicted of embezzlement in Russia.
VOA East Europe Bureau Chief Myrolslava Gongadze in Kyiv and VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin in Washington contributed to this report.
Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.