Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops launched a vicious assault on Ukrainian forces on Saturday in an effort to dislodge them from critical positions in eastern Ukraine, with Moscow trying to protect vital supply routes and both armies jockeying for position. in anticipation of new offensive campaigns.
Russia has been trying for months to break through well-fortified Ukrainian defensive positions in the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, throwing wave after wave of soldiers into the fight and suffering heavy casualties but making few territorial gains.
Those efforts have taken on greater urgency as Western and Ukrainian officials warn that Moscow plans to launch a full-scale attack aimed at regaining control, nearly a year after Russia invaded Ukraine. Western military experts and officials say they also believe Ukraine will try to mount an offensive of its own to drive Russia out of occupied areas in the east.
“It’s no secret that they are preparing for a new wave on February 24,” Oleksiy Danilov, head of Ukraine’s National Defense and Security Council, told Radio Liberty on Friday, referring to Russian forces and what will be the First anniversary. of their full-scale invasion. Moscow’s immediate goal, he said, is to capture all of the Donetsk and Lugansk regions and then “go beyond the borders of the regions.”
Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin abruptly replaced the top commander of Russia’s war effort this month with General Valery V. Gerasimov, who US officials believe secured the top post by vowing to go on the attack, with the initial goal of quickly gain ground. in the East.
The epicenter of fighting in eastern Ukraine since the summer has been mainly around the town of Bakhmut, which has taken on symbolic significance that military analysts say outweighs its strategic importance.
But in recent days, Russian forces have intensified their attacks on the town of Vuhledar, just over 90 miles south of Bakhmut. sits on the intersection of the eastern front in the Donetsk region and the southern front in the Zaporizhzhia regiona location that makes it well positioned to resupply Russian forces moving between the two fronts.
Military analysts say Ukrainian forces have been using their positions in and around Vuhledar to launch attacks on the region’s main rail hub in the occupied city of Volnovakha, less than 10 miles away, threatening resupply efforts for Russia. Trains are essential for moving heavy equipment and large formations of troops around the battlefield, so the more Ukrainian forces can cut the lines running from Russia to southern Ukraine, the more they can isolate Russian forces in the region.
In that sense, pushing the Ukrainians back from Vuhledar would help Russia to secure the train lines. “It guarantees Russia a stable supply from the southern part of the occupied territories,” according to an analysis released on Saturday by the Conflict Intelligence Team, an independent group that analyzes open-source intelligence.
Denis Pushilin, the Moscow-appointed leader of the Donetsk region, said an eventual capture of Vuhledar by Russian forces “solves many problems” and predicted that the city “can become a very important new success for us.” according to Russian. news reports on Friday.
Ukrainian officials have dismissed recent reports by Kremlin representatives and Russian military bloggers about developments in the area. Colonel Sergei Cherevaty, spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command, reported fierce fighting around Vuhledar but said on Saturday that Ukrainian forces had thwarted Russian attacks.
Neither the Russian nor the Ukrainian claims could be independently verified. Britain’s Defense Intelligence Agency said on Friday that Russian military sources were likely “deliberately spreading misinformation in an effort to imply that the Russian operation is maintaining momentum.”
In his late-night address to the nation on Friday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called the intensity of the fighting around Bakhmut and Vuhledar “extremely sharp” and destructive.
“The occupiers are not just storming our positions, they are deliberately and methodically destroying these towns and villages around them,” he said.
The devastating civilian casualty toll from those attacks was evident Saturday morning in the village of Kostyantynivka, roughly 15 miles southwest of Bakhmut, where a Russian missile attack killed three people and wounded 14 others.
In the courtyard of a residential neighborhood, the body of a man lay on the ground among rubble and rubble. His mother knelt over him, sobbing and stroking his side. Another corpse was covered by a sheet, stretched out near a wheelbarrow that the man had probably been pushing at the time of impact.
A woman, smoking on a balcony over the courtyard, was crying and shouting to no one in particular: “I hate you all.”
marc santora reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and michael schwirtz from Kostyantynivka.