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Live updates: Russia invades Ukraine

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov in Sofia, Bulgaria on March 19. (Vassil Donev/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Russia continues to make “incremental gains” in Ukraine’s south and has used “brutal, savage techniques” in the way it has targeted civilians, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Saturday.

“In terms of Russians’ progress in the south, I would say that they continue to make incremental gains. I would also say that they’ve used some brutal, savage techniques in terms of the way that they’ve been targeting civilian populations,” Austin said during a joint press conference with Bulgaria’s Prime Minister Kiril Petkov in Sofia. 

“And again, we would hope that they [Russia] would choose a different path,” Austin added. The amount of pain that the civilians have endured “has been hard to watch,” he said. 

Austin also said Europe faces its “largest security challenge in generations,” and that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “war of choice” against Ukraine has been “tragic.”

“Russia’s aggression has galvanized the Ukrainian people, NATO, and the free world,” Austin said. “Our commitment to Article 5 is ironclad.”

“Improving Bulgaria’s military readiness and NATO interoperability is even more vital today,” Austin said, adding “the United States will continue to stand strong with Bulgaria and our other NATO Allies.”

Austin condemned Russia’s “reckless and ruthless aggression against a peaceful neighbor” and praised Bulgaria for helping Ukrainian civilians.

Austin has traveled to Bulgaria and Slovakia this week as part of a trip to bolster NATO allies.

More context: Troops have made progress in the south of the country using tactics “ripped from the Syria playbook,” Mason Clark, lead Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, told CNN Friday evening.

These tactics include “specific neighborhood-by-neighborhood targeting,” less precise weapons that take a more brutal toll, and hitting civilian infrastructure, he said.

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