NATO allies weigh more guns for Ukraine as Russian artillery beats Bakhmut
By Pavel Polityuk
KIEV (Reuters) – Russian forces on Tuesday bombed Ukrainian troops and towns along front lines in eastern Donetsk region in what appeared to be early volleys of a new offensive, as Western allies met in Brussels to agree on more arms supplies to the Kiev government argue.
Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk province and a key target of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invading army, found itself in a precarious position.
“There is not a single square meter in Bakhmut that is safe or that is not within range of enemy fire or drones,” regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told Ukraine’s national broadcaster.
He said Russian artillery was hitting targets all along the front line in Donetsk, which together with Luhansk province forms the Donbass, Ukraine’s industrial heartland and a prime target for the Russians.
As the first anniversary of the Russian invasion approaches, the Kremlin has ramped up operations across much of southern and eastern Ukraine, and a major new offensive has been widely anticipated.
Ahead of a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Western countries must increase ammunition supplies to Kiev.
“We see no signs that President Putin is preparing for peace. What we’re seeing is the opposite, he’s preparing for more war, for new offensives and new attacks,” he told reporters.
Ukraine has also asked the West for fighter jets.
Ukraine’s military said Tuesday its forces repelled attacks in five settlements in Luhansk and six in Donetsk, including around Bakhmut, in the past 24 hours. They also repelled an attack on a city in the Kharkiv region, which borders Russia in northeastern Ukraine, sources said.
Britain said on Tuesday mercenaries from the Wagner Group who have spearheaded the Russian attack on Bakhmut had made small gains in the northern outskirts over the past three days, but an advance south appeared to have made little headway.
Bakhmut, a regional road and rail transport and logistics hub, has endured months of bombing and many districts lie in ruins. From a pre-war population of about 70,000, only about 5,000 civilians remain there, Governor Kyrylenko said. Troops have fortified positions in anticipation of street fighting.
Authorities hope to keep the number of people there to a minimum and will try to evacuate the wounded, he said.
Bakhmut’s capture would provide a springboard for Russia to advance into two major cities in Donetsk — Kramatorsk and Sloviansk — and give Moscow a boost after months of setbacks following its February 24 invasion.
Acting head of the Russian-installed administration in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said Ukrainian troops were entrenched in Bakhmut, but Russian forces were making progress.
“We understand very well that there is no prospect that the enemy there will simply give up and leave their positions without a fight,” Pushilin said on Russian State Channel 1.
“We don’t see that yet, and sometimes our guys really have to do the impossible to drive the enemy out of their entrenched positions, but we’re still seeing progress.”
Wagner boss Yevgeniy Prigozhin said Russian forces would not be able to capture the city any time soon. In a post on the Telegram channel, Prigozhin said Ukraine is reinforcing up to 500 new fighters every day.
“Bakhmut will not be taken tomorrow because there is strong resistance. The meat grinder is working,” said Prigozhin. “The heaviest fighting takes place in the north (of Bakhmut). There is no reason to encircle the enemy in the northern areas.”
WAITING FOR THE BIG PUSH
Ukrainian officials also said the Russians suffered heavy casualties, including tanks and armored vehicles, and personnel, around Vuhledar, a town about 150 km (90 miles) southwest of Bakhmut.
Reuters was unable to independently verify battlefield reports.
Russia now controls parts of the southern Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, including its nuclear power plant, almost all of Luhansk and over half of Donetsk, including the region’s capital. Although Moscow does not fully control any of the four regions, it claims to have annexed them all.
Kiev-based military analyst Oleksandr Musienko told Reuters that the Russian advance around Bakhmut, Vuhledar and Adviivka could signal the start of the major offensive. Fighting had also intensified in Zaporizhzhya and Kharkiv, he said.
“Russia wants to do this to stretch its forces, but it means that Russia does not learn from its mistakes, because experience has shown that such stretching of forces in 2022 has not brought them any significant victories,” he said.
use up clams
Faced with Ukraine’s desperate demand for more weapons, including fighter jets and long-range missiles, ministers from several NATO countries and other Kiev allies met in the so-called Ramstein Group in Brussels to discuss more military aid.
NATO defense ministers were due to speak later in the day.
Stoltenberg said that beyond the discussions about new weapons for Kiev, weapons already delivered must continue to function. He said he expects the issue of the planes to be addressed but that Ukraine now needs support on the ground.
Ukraine is using grenades faster than the West can make them.
Germany announced that it has signed deals with arms manufacturer Rheinmetall to resume ammunition production for Cheetah anti-aircraft guns, which it has supplied to Kiev. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reiterated that Washington and NATO stand with Ukraine in the long run.
“This collective determination will keep Ukraine’s momentum going in the coming weeks,” Austin said in Brussels. “The Kremlin is still counting on being able to wait for us.”
The Kremlin said NATO is showing its hostility towards Russia every day and becoming more involved in the conflict.
(Reporting by Caleb Davis, Sabine Siebold, Pavel Polityuk, Ron Popeski, Lydia Kelly, and Aleksandar Vasovic; Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Robert Birsel, Andrew Cawthorne, and Mark Heinrich)