Russian forces claimed incremental gains in eastern Ukraine on Monday adding up to their biggest advances in months, after relentless battles that Kyiv described as human wave attacks which showed Moscow had no regard for the lives of its own men.
The administrator of Russian-controlled parts of Donetsk province, Denis Pushilin, claimed troops had secured a foothold in Vuhledar, a coal mining town whose ruins have been a Ukrainian bastion since the outset of the war.
A day earlier, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force said his fighters had secured Blahodatne, a village just north of Bakhmut, a city that has been the focus of sustained Russian attacks for months.
Kyiv said it had repelled assaults on Blahodatne and Vuhledar, and Reuters could not independently verify the situations there. But the locations of the reported fighting indicated clear, though gradual, Russian gains after around two months in which front lines had largely been frozen in place.
“The situation is very tough. Bakhmut, Vuhledar and other sectors in Donetsk region – there are constant Russian attacks,” President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address late on Sunday.
“The enemy does not count its people and, despite numerous casualties, maintains a high intensity of attacks.”
Vuhledar sits south of Bakhmut, near where the eastern frontline protects Russian-controlled rail lines supplying Moscow’s forces in southern Ukraine. Mykola Salamakha, a Ukrainian colonel and military analyst, told Ukrainian Radio NV that Moscow’s assault there was coming at huge cost.
“The town is on an upland and an extremely strong defensive hub has been created there,” he said. “This is a repetition of the situation in Bakhmut – one wave of Russian troops after another crushed by the Ukrainian armed forces.”
In recent weeks Western countries have pledged hundreds of modern tanks and armoured vehicles to equip Ukrainian forces for a counter-offensive to recapture territory later in 2023.
But delivery of those weapons is months away, leaving Kyiv to fight on through the winter in what both sides have described as a meat grinder of relentless attritional warfare.
After Russia exhausted its military with a failed assault on Kyiv last year, Ukraine’s forces counter-attacked and recaptured swathes of territory in the autumn. But that advance has stalled since November, allowing Russia to retake the initiative.
Moscow’s Wagner mercenary force has sent thousands of convicts recruited from Russian prisons into battle around Bakhmut, buying time for Russia’s regular military to reconstitute units with hundreds of thousands of reservists.
Zelenskiy said the West must hasten the delivery of its promised weapons so that Ukraine could go back on the offensive.
“Russia wants the war to drag on and exhaust our forces. So we have to make time our weapon,” he said. “We have to … speed up supplies and open up new weapons options for Ukraine.”
The Kremlin reaffirmed its stance on Monday that further supplies of Western weaponry to Ukraine would only lead to further escalation.
“… it leads to NATO countries more and more becoming directly involved in the conflict – but it doesn’t have the potential to change the course of events and will not do so,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
The Institute for the Study of War think-tank said on Monday “the West’s failure to provide the necessary materiel” last year was the main reason Kyiv’s advances had halted since November.
That had allowed Russia to apply pressure at Bakhmut and fortify the front against a future Ukrainian counter-attack, its researchers said in a report, though they said Ukraine could still recapture territory once the promised weapons arrive.
While Kyiv has won additional weapons from the West, Moscow has turned to allies including Iran, which Kyiv and the West say has provided Russia with hundreds of long-range “suicide drones” used to attack Ukrainian cities far from the front.
Over the weekend, an Iranian military factory was hit by a drone attack that a U.S. official said appeared to have been carried out by Israel. Israel has not commented.
Kyiv implied that the attack on Iran was payback for Tehran’s military support for Russia: “Explosive night in Iran,” senior Zelenskiy aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted. “Did warn you.”
Iran summoned the charge d’affaires at Ukraine’s embassy over Podolyak’s remarks. Russia said the strike on Iran “could have unpredictable consequences for peace and stability in the Middle East.”
Unlike many Western countries, Israel has stopped short of openly arming Kyiv, but it is seen as being alarmed by Russia’s reliance on Iranian drone technology it views as a serious regional security threat.
Russia’s invasion, which it launched on Feb. 24 last year claiming it was necessary to combat a security threat posed by its neighbour’s ties with the West, has killed tens of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.
Russia’s RIA news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying on Monday that as the United States had decided to supply tanks to Ukraine, it made no sense for Russia to talk to Kyiv or its Western “puppet masters”.
On Sunday, however, a Kremlin spokesperson told RIA Russian President Vladimir Putin was open to contacts with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Scholz, who spoke to Putin several times last year, was quoted by the Berlin daily Tagesspiegel on Sunday as saying he would do so again “because it is necessary to speak”.
“The onus is on Putin to withdraw troops from Ukraine to end this horrendous, senseless war that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives already.”