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Ukraine shuts “post-apocalyptic“ battlefield town to civilians


Ukraine shut the eastern town of Avdiivka to non-military personnel on Monday, describing it as a post-apocalyptic wasteland, as Kyiv seeks to break the back of Russia’s flagging winter offensive before a counterassault of its own.

A top Ukrainian general said Kyiv was planning its next move after Moscow appeared to shift focus from the small city of Bakhmut, which Russia has failed to capture after half a year of the war’s bloodiest fighting, to Avdiivka further south.

Front lines in Ukraine have barely budged for more than four months despite a Russian winter offensive using hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited as mercenaries from jail. The Ukrainian military aims to wear down Russian forces before a counteroffensive in coming weeks or months.

Ukrainian ground forces commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said last week that the counterattack could come “very soon”, visited front line troops in the east and said his forces were still repelling Russian attacks on Bakhmut.

Defending the small city in the industrialised Donbas region that Russia has tried to seize for months was a “military necessity”, said Syrskyi, praising Ukrainian resilience in “extremely difficult conditions”.

“We are calculating all possible options for the development of events, and will react adequately to the current situation”.

Commander-in-Chief General Valery Zaluzhniy said on Saturday the situation was being “stabilised” around Bakhmut, where Russian forces say they are fighting street by street.

Last week, the Ukrainian military warned that Avdiivka, a smaller town 90 km (55 miles) further south, could become a “second Bakhmut” as Russia turns its attention there. Both towns have been reduced to rubble in fighting that both sides have called a “meat grinder”.

“I am sad to say this, but Avdiivka is becoming more and more like a place from post-apocalyptic movies,” said Vitaliy Barabash, head of the city’s military administration. Only around 2,000 of a pre-war population of 30,000 remain and he urged them to leave.

A Ukrainian military video showed smoke billowing from ruined apartment blocks and dead soldiers on open ground and in trenches in Bakhmut.

Inside Russia, residents of Kireyevsk, in Tula region 220 km (140 miles) south of Moscow, reacted angrily to damage from what the defence ministry said was a Ukrainian drone it downed there on Sunday. The ministry said three people were injured and apartment blocks were hit. It was among the closest such incidents to the Russian capital so far.

“We were used to seeing these things only online but now we’ve felt it ourselves. Now we know how it is,” 62-year-old Kireyevsk resident Yuri Ovchinnikov told Reuters as Russian soldiers combed the area around the damaged buildings.

There was no official comment from Kyiv. Ukrainian officials generally do not respond to reports of attacks within Russia, though they have sometimes celebrated them without accepting culpability.

Two people were killed and 32 wounded on Monday after Russian forces fired two S-300 missiles at the eastern city of Sloviansk northwest of Bakhmut, according to regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy posted a video of smouldering debris and vowed that “Ukraine will not forgive” such attacks. Moscow denies targeting civilians.

Zelenskiy visited the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region on Monday, his third trip to the front line in less than a week. He awarded soldiers and discussed nuclear safety with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi, who also travelled to the area, home to Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant, which has been occupied by Russian forces for the past year.

Ihor Syrota, director general of the state-run Ukrhydroenergo hydropower generating company, told Reuters there was no immediate danger to the plant but that Ukraine feared it could face a shortage of water to cool reactors by late summer.

Since Putin’s invasion to “demilitarise” Ukraine got bogged down in the autumn, he and other top Russian officials have played up the prospect the war could escalate to involve nuclear weapons: on Saturday he said he had struck a deal to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus.

Kyiv and its Western allies reacted angrily to the plan, which, while not unexpected, is one of Russia’s most pronounced nuclear warnings to NATO over its military support for Ukraine.

“Russia’s nuclear rhetoric is dangerous and irresponsible,” NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu said on Sunday, adding that there had been no changes in Russia’s nuclear positions that would lead NATO to adjust its own.

Ukraine’s security chief, Oleksiy Danilov, said Russia’s plan would destabilise Belarus, which he said had been taken “hostage” by Moscow.

Ukraine has called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council and Lithuania said it would call for new sanctions against Moscow and Minsk. EU policy chief Josep Borrell urged Belarus not to host the weapons and threatened more sanctions.

Belarus and Russia have close military ties, and Minsk allowed Moscow to use its territory as a staging point for the invasion of Ukraine last year.

Russia previously had boasted of not deploying nuclear weapons outside its borders, unlike the United States. This may be the first time since the mid-1990s that it plans to do so.

Washington played down concerns of nuclear escalation.

“We’ve seen nothing that would indicate Mr Putin is preparing to use tactical nuclear weapons in any way whatsoever in Ukraine,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told broadcaster CBC on Sunday.

Tactical nuclear weapons are those used to make specific gains on a battlefield, rather than those capable of wiping out cities. It is unclear how many such weapons Russia has, since the topic is still shrouded in Cold War secrecy.

Related Galleries:

A view shows a residential building, cars and a church damaged by a Russian military strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the frontline city of Avdiivka, in Donetsk region, Ukraine March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Alex Babenko

A view shows a residential building damaged by a Russian military strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the frontline city of Avdiivka, in Donetsk region, Ukraine March 20, 2023. REUTERS/Alex Babenko

A general view of the NATO defence ministers’ meeting at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 14, 2023. REUTERS/Johanna Geron

A mine danger sign and anti-tank constructions are seen near the border with Belarus, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine in Volyn region, Ukraine January 13, 2023. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
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