© Reuters. Bohdan, “Fritz”, the deputy of commander of the unit in 79th Air Assault Brigade, fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) towards Russian positions on a frontline near the town of Marinka, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Donetsk region, Ukraine, February
By Pavel Polityuk
KYIV (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged allies to be speedy in sending more military help as NATO defence ministers met on Wednesday and Russia bombarded the eastern front line in what appeared to be the early salvoes of a new offensive.
Much of Russia’s artillery fire was focused on Bakhmut, a bombed-out city in Donetsk province and a principal target for President Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian troops there have fortified positions in anticipation of street fighting.
Bakhmut’s capture would provide a stepping stone for Russia to advance on two bigger Donetsk cities, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, and give Moscow momentum after months of battlefield setbacks following its invasion last February.
NATO defence ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss the war and stockpiles. Zelenskiy said Russia was in a hurry to achieve as much as it could with its latest push before Ukraine and its allies could gather strength.
“That is why speed is of the essence,” he said in an evening video address.
“Speed in everything – adopting decisions, carrying out decisions, shipping supplies, training. Speed saves people’s lives, speed brings back security, and I thank all our partners who realize that speed is important.”
Ukraine is using shells faster than the West can make them.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he expected Ukraine to launch its own offensive against Russia in the spring and Kyiv’s allies were working to ensure they had the armour, firepower and logistics to make it effective.
“Ukraine has urgent requirements to help it meet this crucial moment in the course of the war. We believe there’ll be a window of opportunity for them to exercise initiative,” Austin told the meeting of defence ministers.
NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg said Putin was “preparing for more war, for new offensives and new attacks.”
With the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion nearing, the Kremlin has intensified operations across a broad swathe of southern and eastern Ukraine, and a major new offensive has been widely anticipated.
In its evening report, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Russian forces trained mortar and artillery fire on more than 20 towns and villages in the Bakhmut part of the front line, including the city itself.
They also launched missile strikes on the industrial cities Kostyantynivka and Kramatorsk in Donetsk, it said.
Russian forces had made incremental progress in their assault on Bahkmut, White House spokesperson John Kirby (NYSE:) said.
Britain said on Tuesday mercenaries from the Wagner Group, who have spearheaded the Russian assault on Bakhmut, had made small gains in its northern outskirts in the past three days.
Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin said Russian forces would not be able to capture the town anytime soon. In a post on the Telegram platform, Prigozhin said Ukraine was reinforcing with up to 500 new fighters a day.
MORE MILITARY AID?
Promised battle tanks last month, Ukraine is also desperate for fighter jets and longer-range missiles to nip any significant new Russian offensive in the bud and help turn the tide against Moscow’s far superior firepower.
Germany appeared to quash Kyiv’s hopes for fighter jets now when its defence minister said that was not a focus at the moment but would certainly be discussed.
“Only when the skies over Ukraine remain safe over the next three, four months, then you can talk about all other further steps,” he said on Tuesday.
The Kremlin, which calls the invasion a “special military operation” to eliminate security threats, said NATO was demonstrating its hostility towards Russia every day and was becoming more and more involved in the conflict.
Kyiv and its allies call Russia’s actions an unprovoked land grab.
Ukrainian officials also said the Russians had suffered big losses around Vuhledar, a town 150 km (90 miles) southwest of Bakhmut, including tanks, armoured vehicles and personnel.
Reuters was unable to independently verify battlefield reports.
On the snowbound Ukrainian front line between Vuhledar and Marinka 30 km to the northeast, and 400 metres (1,300 feet) from Russian positions, two officers said Kyiv’s forces were holding firm against intensifying Russian artillery and mortar fire.
Russia now holds swathes of the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, including its nuclear plant, nearly all of Luhansk and over half of Donetsk, including the regional capital.
A U.S.-backed report published on Tuesday said Russia has held at least 6,000 Ukrainian children – likely many more – in sites in Crimea and Russia whose primary purpose appears to be political re-education.
Russia’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.