© Reuters. 10th Mountain Assault Brigade Anti-Aircraft Unit soldier, call sign “Chub”, 34, prepares to pose for a portrait with a man-portable anti-aircraft missile system, amid the attack on the Russia vs Ukraine, near Soledar north of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 23, 2023.
By Mike Collett-White
NEAR KREMINNA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Russian forces attacked northern and southern parts of the front in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region on Friday, even as Kiev said the assault on Moscow was beginning near the town of Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military reports described heavy fighting along a line from Lyman to Kupiansk, as well as in the south at Avdiivka, on the outskirts of the Russian city of Donetsk.
Both areas were major Russian targets during a winter campaign to fully capture Ukraine’s industrialized Donbass region. The offensive has so far yielded few gains despite the deaths of thousands of soldiers on both sides in the bloodiest fighting of the war.
At a Ukrainian artillery position in lush pine forests behind the northern part of the front, troops fired 155mm shells from a French TRF-1 howitzer towards a highway used to supply the Russian-controlled Kreminna.
“Fortunately, we are in the same position,” one soldier told Reuters. “Because we are facing a very strong enemy with very good weapons. And it is a professional army: airborne troops.”
As orders came in with coordinates, the crew jumped into position, stripped camouflage, aimed, charged, and fired. After three shots, they lowered their gun barrel, covered it, and returned to the bunkers to await further orders. Artillery and small arms fire could be heard in the distance.
The front lines have barely moved since November, despite intense fighting. Ukraine recaptured swaths of territory in the second half of 2022 but has since remained mostly on the defensive, while Russia has attacked with hundreds of thousands of reservists and freshly drafted convicts recruited from prison.
As winter turns to spring, the main question in Ukraine is how much longer Russia can sustain its offensive, and when or if Ukraine can turn the tide with a counterattack.
Meeting in Ottawa on Friday, US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed their “unwavering support for the people of Ukraine as they defend themselves against Putin’s brutal and barbaric invasion”, Trudeau said.
On Thursday, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces said Russia’s assault on Bakhmut, a small town that was at the center of the biggest battle of the war, appeared to be losing momentum and Kiev could go on the offensive “very soon”.
“PEOPLE PUSHED TO THE LIMITS”
For now, Ukrainian forces are still focused on preventing a Russian advance over more than 300 km (185 miles) of the Donbass front, from Kupiansk in the north to Vuhledar in the south.
“The shelling of Avdiivka does not stop – artillery, rockets, mortars,” said Oleksiy Dmytrashkyvskyi of Ukraine’s military command in Tavria, responsible for the southern regions, who said he was saddened by the conditions suffered by the people, mostly elderly, who didn’t want to leave.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesman for the eastern command defending the more northern front, said Russia was mainly focusing on a stretch from Kupyansk to Lyman recaptured by Ukrainian forces last year.
Both said the Russians were getting stronger after heavy losses. There was no similar update from Russia, which has long claimed to inflict heavy casualties on the Ukrainians.
In Bakhmut itself, Ukrainian troops, which looked likely to withdraw a few weeks ago, have instead entrenched, a strategy some Western military experts say is risky given the need to conserve forces for a counterattack.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said some 10,000 Ukrainian civilians, many of them elderly and disabled, were suffering from “very difficult conditions” in and around Bakhmut.
“They (…) spend almost entire days under intense shelling in the [underground] shelter,” Umar Khan of the ICRC told a press briefing. “All you see are people being pushed to the limits of their existence, their survival and their resilience.”
The United Nations has published its latest report on rights violations during the war, confirming thousands of civilian deaths, which it describes as the tip of the iceberg, as well as disappearances, torture and rape, mainly of Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas. Russia denies the atrocities.
THE RUSSIAN ECONOMY LOADED
In Kostiantynivka, west of Bakhmut, a Russian missile slammed into a shelter providing warm shelter for civilians, killing at least three women, local officials said.
In the northern region of Sumy, an administrative building, a school building and residential buildings were among those damaged by Russian shelling that killed two civilians, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office said.
There was no immediate Russian response to the reports.
Russia said its forces destroyed a hangar housing Ukrainian drones in the southern Odessa region.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, claiming Ukraine’s ties to the West posed a security threat. Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians as well as soldiers on both sides have been killed. kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subjugate an independent country.
Dmitry Medvedev, a hard-line Kremlin official, said Moscow wants to create demilitarized zones around Ukrainian territory it claims to have annexed, and would otherwise fight deep inside Ukraine.
While the Russian invasion caused colossal damage to Ukraine, increased defense spending, Western sanctions and the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men from the labor force also caused economic upheaval in the country.
The Institute of Social Policy at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics found in a study published this week that even under its most optimistic scenario, real incomes would exceed 2021 levels by only 2% by the end of the decade and a middle class that grew after Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 would shrink significantly.