Ukraine is being bombed by rockets, Russia wants to conquer Bakhmut in April
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.
The extent of the damage was unclear on the unit, which was hit several times during the war and ceased operations on at least one occasion.
“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.
Police in Moldova say they have again found rocket debris near the border with Ukraine.
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 of people, pulverized Ukrainian cities, destabilized the global economy and displaced millions from their homes.
Germany showed the extent of the disruption by saying 1.1 million people arrived from Ukraine in 2022, surpassing the unprecedented influx of migrants in 2015-16.
WAGNER sees Bakhmut captured by April
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 bombarded and encircled Bakhmut for months. Most of the pre-war population of around 70,000 people left the country, leaving Ukrainian soldiers buried in it.
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’s taken, and what they claim is a huge loss of life in 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.
Zelenskiy thanked Norway for pledged US$7 billion over five years, the largest ever aid 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 and Canadian counterpart Melanie Joly were the latest in a line of foreign dignitaries to travel to Ukraine.
Cohen was due to meet Zelenskyy on the first such visit during the war from Israel, which is coordinating with Russia over attacks on suspected Iranian targets in Syria and has so far not pledged direct arms supplies to Kiev.
Joly met First Lady Olena Zelenska and announced CA$21.2 million (US$15.8 million) in aid to help fight conflict-related sexual violence and demining in Ukraine, among other things.
“Canada will continue to support them on the path to peace and will hold accountability for the horrific crimes being committed across Ukraine for as long as necessary,” she said.
Zelensky, who rose to global fame while spearheading Ukraine’s war effort, was set to open the Berlin Film Festival via video.
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.
($1 = 1.3409 Canadian Dollars)
(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)