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Ukraine prepares counteroffensive as Russia“s assault on Bakhmut flags

2023-03-24T00:29:41Z

Drone footage showed the scale of destruction in Bakhmut as Ukraine says Russia’s huge winter offensive is losing steam without taking the city, the country’s top ground forces commander said on Thursday (March 23).

Ukrainian troops, on the defensive for four months, will soon launch a counterassault as Russia’s huge winter offensive weakens without capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukraine’s top ground forces commander said.

The remarks on Thursday were the strongest indication yet from Kyiv that it is close to shifting tactics, having absorbed Russia’s onslaught through a brutal winter.

Russia’s Wagner mercenaries “are losing considerable strength and are running out of steam”, Kyiv’s ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a social media post.

“Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we did in the past near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk,” he said, listing Ukrainian counteroffensives last year that recaptured swathes of land.

There was no immediate response from Moscow to suggestions its forces in Bakhmut were losing momentum, but Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin issued statements in recent days, warning of a Ukrainian counterassault.

On Monday, Prigozhin published a letter to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, saying Ukraine aimed to cut off Wagner’s forces from Russia’s regular troops.

Reuters journalists near the front line north of Bakhmut saw signs consistent with the claim that the Russian offensive in the area could be waning. At a Ukrainian-held village west of Soledar, on Bakhmut’s northern outskirts, the intensity of the Russian bombardment noticeably lessened from two days earlier.

“It was really hot here a week ago, but in the last three days it has been more quiet,” said a Ukrainian soldier who used the call sign “Kamin”, or “Stone”.

“We can see this in the enemy’s air strikes. If before there were five-six air raids in a day, today we had only one helicopter attack,” said the soldier.

A slowdown by Russia in Bakhmut could mean Moscow is diverting its troops and resources to other areas. Britain said on Thursday that Russian troops had made gains further north this month, partially regaining control over the approaches to the town of Kreminna. Intense battles were also under way further south.

Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov agreed with that assessment. He said on YouTube that Russia’s attacks on Bakhmut were decreasing, and it was shifting its efforts south to the town of Avdiivka.

Moscow’s forces have become more active in areas to the north in the Kharkiv and Luhansk regions as well as central Zaporizhzhia and southern Kherson regions, he said.

Any shift in momentum in Bakhmut, if confirmed, would be remarkable given the city’s symbolic importance as the focus of Russia’s offensive, and the scale of the losses on both sides there in Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Europe on Thursday to increase and speed up its supply of weapons and impose additional sanctions on Russia, warning the war could otherwise drag on for years.

“If Europe waits, the evil may have time to regroup and prepare for years of war. It is in your power to prevent this,” a clearly frustrated Zelenskiy said in a video address to European Union leaders, delivered from a train.

In particular, he reiterated demands for long-range missiles, ammunition and modern aircraft, and said the EU needed to speed up the process to grant Ukraine membership.

At the EU summit, leaders approved a plan agreed by foreign ministers on Monday to send 1 million artillery shells to Ukraine over the next year. They also discussed global food security and sanctions on Russia.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said that the EU would work to find Ukrainian children deported to Russia and press for their return. She said 16,200 children have been deported and only 300 returned to Ukraine.

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin a week ago for the forcible removal of Ukrainian children.

“It is a horrible reminder of the darkest times of our history… to deport children. This is a war crime,” von der Leyen said.

On the ground in Ukraine, front lines have largely been frozen since November. Ukraine had looked likely to pull out of Bakhmut weeks ago but decided to fight on.

Zelenskiy had earlier on Thursday continued a tour of frontline provinces, visiting the Kherson region in the south a day after meeting troops near Bakhmut. A video showed him meeting residents in Posad Pokrovske, a bombed-out village on the former Kherson front line recaptured in Ukraine’s last big advance last year.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 in what it calls a “special military operation”, claiming Kyiv’s ties to the West were a security threat. Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed.

Russia has destroyed Ukrainian cities and set millions of people to flight. It claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.

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Anti-aircraft unit serviceman of the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, call sign “Chub”, 34, poses for a portrait with a portable anti-aircraft missile system, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near Soledar north of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 23, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

Portable anti-aircraft missile systems lean against a wall, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near Soledar north of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 23, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

Anti-aircraft unit serviceman of the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, call sign “Chub”, 34, prepares to pose for a portrait with a portable anti-aircraft missile system, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near Soledar north of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 23, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

Anti-aircraft unit serviceman of the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, call sign “Chub”, 34, emerges from a storage basement with a portable anti-aircraft missile system amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, near Soledar north of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 23, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of the Ground Forces of Ukraine visits a position of his troops in a frontline, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the town of Soledar, Donetsk region, Ukraine, in this handout picture released January 9, 2023. Press Service of the Ukrainian Ground Forces/Handout via REUTERS

A view shows a power transformer at a compound of a power substation damaged by a Russian military strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Kherson region, Ukraine March 23, 2023. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS

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A view shows a residential building damaged by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine March 22, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

Ukrainian servicemen ride a tank on a road towards the frontline town of Bakhmut amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Chasiv Yar, Donetsk region, Ukraine March 2, 2023. REUTERS/Lisi Niesner

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Rescuers and police officers work at a site of a building of the local lyceum heavily damaged by a Russian drone strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the town of Rzhyshchiv, in Kyiv region, Ukraine March 22, 2023. Press service of the Kyiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office/Handout via REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a reception in honor of the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023. Sputnik/Grigory Sysoev/Kremlin via REUTERS

A view shows a building of the local lyceum heavily damaged by a Russian drone strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the town of Rzhyshchiv, in Kyiv region, Ukraine March 22, 2023. Press service of the Kyiv Regional Prosecutor’s Office/Handout via REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a reception in honor of the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023. Sputnik/Pavel Byrkin/Kremlin via REUTERS

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023. Sputnik/Pavel Byrkin/Kremlin via REUTERS

Rescuers work at the site of a residential building damaged by a Russian missile strike in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, March 22, 2023. REUTERS/Stringer

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023. Sputnik/Pavel Byrkin/Kremlin via REUTERS/File Photo

An Ukrainian tank passes by a vehicle of the Ukrainian State Emergency Services transporting internally displaced people Vasyl Kurlyshchuk, 74, and Valerii Zolotov, 74, both evacuated from the frontline area of Chasiv Yar in the eastern Donetsk region, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Ukraine March 21, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

A view shows a monastery damaged by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Odesa, Ukraine March 21, 2023. REUTERS/Serhii Smolientsev

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception in honor of the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023. Sputnik/Grigory Sysoev/Kremlin via REUTERS

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