Russia presses along Ukraine front after reports of Bakhmut slowdown

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[March 25, 2023]  By Mike Collett-White

NEAR KREMINNA, Ukraine (Reuters) -Russian forces attacked northern and southern stretches of the front in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region on Friday, even as Kyiv said Moscow's assault was flagging near the city of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian military reports described heavy fighting along a line running from Lyman to Kupiansk, as well as in the south at Avdiivka on the outskirts of the Russian-held city of Donetsk.

Both areas have been major Russian targets in a winter campaign to fully capture Ukraine's industrialised Donbas region. The offensive has so far yielded scant gains despite the deaths of thousands of troops on both sides in the war's bloodiest fighting.

At a Ukrainian artillery position in lush pine forests behind the northern stretch of the front, troops fired 155 mm rounds from a French TRF-1 howitzer towards a highway used to supply Russian-held Kreminna.

"Luckily we are holding the same position," a soldier told Reuters. "Because we are facing a very strong enemy with very good arms. And it's a professional army: airborne troops."

As orders came in with coordinates, the crew jumped into position, removed camouflage, aimed, loaded and fired. After three rounds, they lowered their gun's barrel, covered it back up and returned to bunkers to await further orders. Artillery and small arms fire could be heard in the distance.

The front lines have barely budged since November, despite intense fighting. Ukraine recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, but has since kept mostly to the defensive, while Russia has attacked with hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and 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 whether Ukraine can reverse the momentum with a counterassault.

Meeting in Ottawa on Friday, U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed their "steadfast support for the Ukrainian people as they defend themselves against Putin's brutal and barbaric invasion," Trudeau said.

On Thursday, the commander of Ukrainian ground forces said Russia's assault on Bakhmut, a small city that has been the focus of the biggest battle of the war, appeared to be losing steam and Kyiv could go on the offensive "very soon".

'PEOPLE PUSHED TO THE VERY LIMITS'

For now, Ukrainian forces are still focused on preventing a Russian advance along more than 300 km (185 miles) of Donbas front, from Kupiansk in the north to Vuhledar in the south.

"Shelling of Avdiivka does not stop - artillery, rockets, mortars," said Oleksiy Dmytrashkyvskyi of Ukraine's Tavria military command, responsible for southern areas, who said he was saddened by the conditions suffered by the mostly elderly people who did not want to leave.

Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the east command defending the front farther north, said Russia's main focus was on a stretch from Kupiansk to Lyman recaptured by Ukrainian forces last year.

Both said the Russians were reinforcing after heavy losses. There was no similar update from the Russian side, which has long claimed to be inflicting heavy casualties on the Ukrainians.

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Anti-aircraft unit serviceman of the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, call sign "Chub", 34, emerges from a storage basement with a portable anti-aircraft missile system amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, near Soledar north of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 23, 2023. REUTERS/Violeta Santos Moura

In Bakhmut itself, Ukrainian troops, who weeks ago appeared likely to pull back, have instead dug in, 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 elderly and with disabilities, were suffering "very dire conditions" in and around Bakhmut.

"They are ... spending almost the entire days in intense shelling in the [underground] shelters," the ICRC's Umar Khan told a news briefing. "All you see is people pushed to the very limits of their existence and survival and resilience."

The United Nations issued its latest report on rights abuses in the war, confirming thousands of civilian deaths, which it describes as the tip of the iceberg, as well as disappearances, torture and rape, mostly of Ukrainians in Russian-occupied areas. Russia denies atrocities.

RUSSIAN ECONOMY BURDENED

In Kostiantynivka, west of Bakhmut, a Russian missile slammed into a refuge offering warm shelter for civilians, killing at least three women, local officials said.

In the northern Sumy region, 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 had destroyed a hangar housing Ukrainian drones in the Odesa region in the south.

Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, saying Ukraine's ties to the West were 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 subdue an independent country.

Dmitry Medvedev, a hardline Kremlin official, said Moscow wants to create demilitarised zones around Ukrainian territory it claims to have annexed, and would otherwise battle deep into Ukraine.

While Russia's invasion has wreaked colossal damage in Ukraine, increased defence spending, Western sanctions and the loss of hundreds of thousands of young men from the workforce have also caused economic upheaval at home.

The Social Policy Institute at Moscow's Higher School of Economics found in a study released this week that, even in its most optimistic scenario, real incomes would only exceed 2021 levels by 2% by the decade's end and a middle class that grew after Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 would shrink markedly.

(Reporting by Mike Collett-White west of Kreminna, Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Alex Richardson and Cynthia Osterman)

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