By Mike Collett-White
WEST OF SOLEDAR, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukrainian troops, on the defensive for four months, will soon launch a counterassault as Russia’s huge winter offensive weakens without capturing the eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukraine’s top ground forces commander said.
The remarks on Thursday were the strongest indication yet from Kyiv that it is close to shifting tactics, having absorbed Russia’s onslaught through a brutal winter.
Russia’s Wagner mercenaries “are losing considerable strength and are running out of steam”, Kyiv’s ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a social media post.
“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 claim 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.
A slowdown by Russia in Bakhmut could mean Moscow 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.
Moscow’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.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Europe on Thursday to increase and speed up its supply of weapons and impose additional sanctions on Russia, warning the war could otherwise drag on for years.
“If Europe waits, the evil may have time to regroup and prepare for years of war. It is in your power to prevent this,” a clearly frustrated Zelenskiy said in a video address to European Union leaders, delivered from a train.
In particular, he reiterated demands for long-range missiles, ammunition and modern aircraft, and said the EU needed to speed up the process to grant Ukraine membership.
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.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, said that the EU would work to find Ukrainian children deported to Russia and press for their return. She said 16,200 children have been deported and only 300 returned to Ukraine.
The International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir 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.
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 frontline 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”, claiming Kyiv’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 claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine. Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White west of Soledar, Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Cynthia Osterman; editing by Diane Craft)
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