Russia bombs Ukraine as push for besieged Bakhmut continues

By Max Hunder and Pavel Polityuk

KIEV (Reuters) – Russia rained rockets over Ukraine on Thursday, hitting its biggest oil refinery, Kiev said, while the head of the Wagner mercenary group predicted the long-besieged city of Bakhmut would fall within months.

After a pattern of heavy bombing after the Ukrainian battlefield or diplomatic gains, Russia fired 36 missiles in the early hours, Ukraine’s air force said after representatives of the NATO alliance met the previous day to plan more support for Kiev.

About 16 were shot down, it added, a lower rate than normal.

The missiles set off air raid sirens and landed across Ukraine, including the largest oil refinery, Kremenchuk, where the extent of the damage was not immediately clear.

“Another massive rocket attack by the terrorist state on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” the Defense Ministry tweeted. Ukraine said the barrage included three KH-31 missiles and an Oniks, which its air defenses are unable to shoot down.

There was no news of the strikes from Moscow.

Backed by tens of thousands of reservists, Russia has intensified ground attacks in southern and eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, and a new major offensive appears to be forming as the first anniversary of its February 24 invasion approaches.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands, pulverized Ukrainian cities, destabilized the global economy just as it was recovering from the COVID pandemic and forced millions from their homes.

Referring to the scale of the humanitarian catastrophe, Germany said 1.1 million people arrived from Ukraine in 2022, surpassing an unprecedented migrant influx in 2015-16.

Russia is currently focused on the small town of Bakhmut in Donetsk, one of two regions that make up the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland now partially occupied by Russia.

In fighting led by the Wagner group, swollen by prison recruits, Russia has spent months bombarding and encircling Bakhmut, where most of its pre-war population of some 70,000 has stayed, leaving Ukrainian soldiers dug in.

WAGNER sees Bakhmut captured by April

Bakhmut’s capture would give Russia a stepping stone to advance into two larger cities, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, further west in Donetsk. But Ukraine and its allies say taking Bakhmut would be a Pyrrhic victory given the months it has taken, and what they claim is a huge loss of life during waves of Russian attacks.

In an interview with a pro-war military blogger, Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin predicted Bakhmut would fall next month or in April, depending on how many men Ukraine was throwing into the fight and how well his men were being cared for.

“Because there are a lot of problems that need to be solved. Of course, it will also depend on whether we continue to be bled dry,” he added, referring to the end of prisoner recruitment.

As Ukraine quickly burns out ammunition and clamors for heavier firepower, including tanks and fighter jets, NATO members are ramping up production and pledging more at meetings in Brussels this week.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s army has received huge amounts of aid, particularly from the United States, which has provided more than $27.4 billion since the conflict began.

Senior US officials have advised Ukraine to wait until the last stockpile of US weapons is in place and training is completed before any intended counteroffensive.

“We have to make sure that this spring you can really feel that Ukraine is moving towards victory,” said Zelenskyy.

He thanked Norway for pledged US$7 billion over five years, the largest aid program ever for a single recipient country.

Russia calls the invasion a “military special operation” against security threats and has cited shipments of heavy weapons to Ukraine as evidence the West is escalating the war.

Kiev and its allies describe Russia’s actions as land grabs.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen was scheduled to meet Zelenskyy as the latest in a series of foreign dignitaries to visit Ukraine. It was the first such visit by a senior Israeli official since the war began.

Israel, which is coordinating with Russia over attacks on suspected Iranian targets in Syria, has stopped pledging direct arms supplies to Kiev.

Belarus, which allowed Russia to use its territory to send troops to Ukraine earlier in the war, said it would only fight alongside its ally if attacked.

Its President Alexander Lukashenko has repeatedly dismissed proposals from Kiev to join the conflict.

(Reporting by Max Hunder, Pavel Polityuk, Caleb Davis, Tim Heritage, Jake Cordell, Gwladys Fouche, Sabine Siebold, Ron Popeski, and David Ljunggren; Writing by Stephen Coates and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Mark Heinrich)


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