By Vladyslav Smilianets
NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine, Dec 8 (Reuters) – Russian forces attacked settlements in eastern Ukraine from the ground and air, officials said on Thursday, in support of the Kremlin’s apparently scaled-back ambition of only securing the bulk of Ukrainian lands it has claimed in the war.
Fighting was underway along the entire line of demarcation in the Donetsk region, with the frontline town of Avdiivka shelled by Russian tanks on Thursday morning, said Tatiana Ignatchenko, a spokeswoman for the regional administration.
Near the city of Lysychansk, Russia deployed more troops to try to capture the village of Bilohorivka, Ukraine’s governor of Luhansk region said, while a commander in another fought-over settlement described an intensifying Russian air offensive.
“They are bringing in more and more reserves,” around Bilohorivka to try to capture the village, Luhansk governor Serhiy Haiday told Ukrainian television. “There are constant attacks.”
In a reminder that despite the hostilities, Russia maintains lines of communication with the West, Washington said Moscow had freed U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner in return for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has given conflicting statements on the goals of the war since his Feb. 24 invasion, but is now clear the aims include some expansion of Russia’s borders, in contrast with comments made at the start of the “special military operation,” when he said Moscow’s plans did not include the occupation of Ukrainian land.
The Kremlin said on Thursday it was still set on securing at least the bulk of the parts of east and south Ukraine that it has claimed as its own, but appeared to give up on seizing other territory in the west and northeast that Ukraine has recaptured in a steady reversal of early Russian gains.
The Kremlin no longer speaks of trying to force a change of government in Kyiv.
Putin on Wednesday said Russia had already achieved a “significant result” with the acquisition of “new territories” – a reference to the annexation of four partly occupied regions in September that Kyiv and most members of the United Nations condemned as illegal.
Warning that the war could be lengthy, Putin said Russia had made the Sea of Azov its “internal sea”, now bounded by Russia and Russian-controlled territory in southern Ukraine including Crimea.
He said that had been an aspiration of Peter the Great – the 17th- and 18th-century warrior tsar to whom he has compared himself in the past.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says his troops will eventually drive Russia from all the captured territory, including the annexed Crimea peninsular that sits between the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov.
In the settlement of Bakhmut and other parts of the Donetsk region that neighbours Luhansk, the assault killed nine civilians, the regional governor said. Ukrainian forces countered with barrages from rocket launchers, Reuters witnessed.
On Thursday, Russian naval forces shot down a Ukrainian drone over the Black Sea, said the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol, an important port and the largest city in Crimea.
Earlier this week, twin strikes on air bases deep inside Russian territory dealt Moscow a reputational blow and raised questions about why its defences failed, as attention turned to the use of drones in the war between neighbours.
In the Russian-controlled Ukrainian city of Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia region, a supply route into Crimea, Russian-installed authorities summoned men of fighting age to mobilize, Ukraine’s military general staff said in a statement.
Russia has launched dozens of attacks from multiple rocket launchers since Wednesday, the general staff said, along with 16 airstrikes and 7 missile attacks.
Reuters was unable to immediately verify battlefield reports from either side.
Hundreds of miles away, across Ukraine’s northern border, Russian soldiers were preparing for fighting in winter conditions by taking part in tactical training exercises in Moscow’s close ally Belarus, the Russian defence ministry said.
A flurry of Russian diplomatic and military activity in Belarus in recent weeks has revived fears that Moscow is pressing its ally to get more involved in the Ukraine war.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who relied on Russian troops to put down a popular revolt two years ago, has allowed his country to serve as a staging ground for Russia’s invasion of their common neighbour.
He has so far kept his own army from joining in, but recent weeks have seen increasing signs of involvement in Belarus from Moscow. On Saturday, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu flew to the capital Minsk, where he and Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed amendments to the two countries’ security cooperation agreement. The new terms were not disclosed.
Thousands of Russian troops have deployed in Belarus since October, Ukraine says, and Belarus authorities have increasingly spoken of a threat of what they call terrorism from partisans operating from across the border.