Russia said on Wednesday it had broken through two fortified Ukrainian defence lines on the eastern front, with Kyiv describing conditions there as difficult and Western allies announcing more military aid including artillery rounds.
The Russian Defence Ministry said the Ukrainians had retreated in the face of Russian attacks in the Luhansk region, although it gave no details and Reuters was not able to independently verify this and other battlefield reports.
“During the offensive … the Ukrainian troops randomly retreated to a distance of up to 3 km (1.9 miles) from the previously occupied lines,” the ministry said on the Telegram messaging app.
“Even the more fortified second line of defence of the enemy could not hold the breakthrough of the Russian military.”
The ministry did not specify in which part of the Luhansk region the offensive took place.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said Kyiv’s forces had repelled some Russian attacks in Luhansk but added: “The situation in the region remains difficult.”
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Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Haidai said Russia was pouring heavy equipment and mobilised troops into Luhansk.
“The attacks are coming from different directions in waves,” Haidai said. “(But) those who spread the information that allegedly our defence forces have pulled back beyond the line of the administrative border (of Luhansk) – this does not correspond to reality.”
The Kremlin has intensified attacks across a swathe of southern and eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, and a major new offensive has been widely anticipated.
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Russia’s main effort has been focused on the town of Bakhmut in Donetsk province adjacent to Luhansk.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Ukrainian TV on Wednesday that fierce battles were being fought in Bakhmut.
The Ukrainian military said its units had repelled Russian attacks in the areas of over 20 settlements including Vuhledar – a town 150 km (90 miles) southwest of Bakhmut.
Bakhmut’s capture would give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Donetsk, lending it momentum after months of setbacks ahead of the Feb. 24 first anniversary of the invasion.
Zelenskiy said on Tuesday Russia was in a hurry to achieve as much as it could with its latest push before Ukraine, armed with heavier and longer-range firepower from the West, gathers strength for what many expect to be a spring counter-offensive.
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Ukraine is using shells faster than the West can make them and says it needs fighter jets and long-range missiles to counter the Russian offensive and recapture lost territory.
‘GRINDING WAR OF ATTRITION’
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said alliance members were increasing production of 155mm artillery rounds and needed to ramp that up even further to help Ukraine. It was “obvious” NATO states had to spend more on defence, he added.
“So yes, things are happening but we need to continue, we need to step up even more. This is now becoming a grinding war of attrition and (this) is a war of logistics,” he told reporters after a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged countries to join Germany in sending “as many tanks as possible, and as quickly as possible” to Ukraine after media reports that Denmark and the Netherlands said they would not deliver Leopard 2 battle tanks like Berlin.
“It would be very disappointing if, after so long of pointing the finger at Germany for not doing anything, these countries now don’t follow suit,” Borrell told Germany’s Phoenix broadcaster.
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“I know there are hundreds of tanks in EU armies, some of them need to be refurbished, but then you have to do it, and do it quickly, because in the spring it will be too late.”
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said after the Brussels talks that Ukraine had a very good chance of taking and “exploiting” the initiative on the battlefield this year.
Austin said that for every new system NATO provides Kyiv, it will train troops on it. “We’re laser-focused on making sure that we provide a capability and not just the platform.”
Britain said it and other European nations would provide military equipment including spare parts for tanks and artillery ammunition to Ukraine via an international fund, with an initial package worth more than $241 million.
The United States and NATO have pledged that Western support will not falter in the face of a looming Russian offensive.
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On Jan. 20 a senior U.S. administration official said Washington was advising Ukraine to hold off with a major offensive until the latest supply of U.S. weaponry is in place and training has been provided.
Russia calls the invasion a “special military operation” against security threats, and says NATO shows hostility to Russia daily and is growing more involved in the conflict. Kyiv and its allies call Russia’s actions an unprovoked land grab.
Russia holds swathes of Ukraine’s southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, including its nuclear plant, nearly all of Luhansk and over half of Donetsk. Last year, Russia declared it had annexed the four regions in a move condemned by most United Nations members as illegal.
Russia aims to retake the settlements in the northeastern Kharkiv region that it surrendered to Kyiv last year, the head of the Russian-installed administration there said on Wednesday.