March 4. 2024. 6:08

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Ukraine prepares counteroffensive as Russia’s assault on Bakhmut flags


Ukrainian troops, on the defensive for months, will soon counterattack as Russia’s offensive looks to be faltering, a commander said, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned that without a faster supply of arms the war could last years.

Zelenskyy said Europe must increase and speed up its supply of weapons, again calling for long-range missiles, ammunition and modern aircraft, and impose additional sanctions on Russia.

“If Europe waits, the evil may have time to regroup and prepare for years of war,” a clearly frustrated Zelenskyy said on Thursday (23 March) in a video address to European Union leaders, delivered from a train.

Zelenskyy urges EU leaders to address ‘five delays’ in Ukraine support

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told EU leaders on Thursday (23 March) that “delays” in sending fighter jets and long-range missiles could extend the war in his country.

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.

Britain has pledged to supply armour piercing munitions containing depleted uranium to help destroy Russian tanks, a step President Vladimir Putin said would force a response from Russia as the weapons had “a nuclear component”.

UK says no nuclear escalation in Ukraine after row over depleted uranium munitions

Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said on Wednesday (22 March) there was no nuclear escalation in the Ukraine war after Russian President Vladimir Putin criticised Britain for supplying depleted uranium tank munitions to Ukrainian forces.

Slovakia said on Thursday it had handed over the first four MiG-29 jets it has pledged to Ukraine, with the rest to be delivered in weeks.

Ukraine’s top ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said his forces would soon begin a counter offensive after withstanding Russia’s brutal winter campaign.

He said Russia’s Wagner mercenaries, who have been at the front line of Moscow’s assault on eastern and southern Ukraine, “are losing considerable strength and are running out of steam”.

“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 suggestion 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.

Shifting focus

A slowdown by Russia in Bakhmut could mean it 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.

Russia’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.

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 front-line 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”, saying Ukraine’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 says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.

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

The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for 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.