Zelensky calls for faster military aid as Russia pounds Ukraine’s east

KYIV (Reuters): Ukraine urged allies to speed up the pace of military aid as NATO defense ministers prepared to meet for a second day on Wednesday, while Russia said its troops had broken through two fortified lines of Ukrainian defenses on the eastern front.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the Ukrainians had retreated in the face of Russian attacks in the Luhansk region, although it provided no details and Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield report.

“During the offensive … the Ukrainian troops randomly retreated to a distance of up to 3 km (1.9 miles) from the previously occupied lines,” the ministry said on the Telegram messaging app.

“Even the more fortified second line of defense of the enemy could not hold the breakthrough of the Russian military.”

The Kremlin has intensified attacks across a swathe of southern and eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, and a major new offensive has been widely anticipated.

Russia’s main effort has been focused on the town of Bakhmut in Donetsk province adjacent to Luhansk.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces did not mention any significant setbacks in Luhansk in its morning update on Wednesday.

It said Ukrainian units had repelled attacks in the areas of more than 20 settlements, including Bakhmut as well as Vuhledar — a town 150km southwest of Bakhmut.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday said Russia was in a hurry to achieve as much as it can with its latest push before Ukraine and its allies gather strength.

“That is why speed is of the essence,” he said as NATO defense chiefs met in Brussels for two days of talks that continue on Wednesday. “Speed in everything — adopting decisions, carrying out decisions, shipping supplies, training. Speed saves people’s lives.”

Bakhmut’s capture would provide a stepping stone for Russia to advance on two bigger cities, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in Donetsk, giving it momentum after months of setbacks ahead of the first anniversary of the invasion on Feb. 24.

“The situation on the front line, especially in Donetsk and Luhansk regions, remains very difficult. The battles are literally for every foot of Ukrainian land,” Zelensky said in his evening address on Tuesday.

Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said there was fighting “around every single house” in Bakhmut.

“The situation remains extremely difficult, but under control of our forces and the front line has not moved,” he said in a YouTube video.

Ukraine is using shells faster than the West can make them and says it needs fighter jets and long-range missiles to counter the Russian offensive and recapture lost territory.

The United States and NATO have pledged that Western support will not falter in the face of a looming Russian offensive.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he expected Ukraine to launch its own offensive in the spring.

“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,” he said.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said supplying Ukraine with fighter jets would certainly be discussed but that it was not a focus at the moment.

Russia, which calls the invasion a “special military operation” to eliminate security threats, said NATO demonstrated its hostility toward Russia every day and was becoming more involved in the conflict. Kyiv and its allies call Russia’s actions an unprovoked land grab.

Russia holds swathes of Ukraine’s southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, including its nuclear plant, nearly all of Luhansk and over half of Donetsk.

Last year, Russia declared it had annexed the four regions in a move condemned by most countries of the United Nations as illegal.

The upper chamber of Russia’s parliament will hold an extraordinary meeting on Feb. 22 that will focus on adoption of laws on the integration of four regions into the Russian Federation, RIA Novosti reported citing a senior lawmaker.

A US-backed report published on Tuesday said Russia had held at least 6,000 Ukrainian children — likely many more — in camps in Crimea and Russia whose primary purpose appeared to be political re-education.

Russia’s embassy in Washington said Russia accepted children who were forced to flee with their families from the shelling in Ukraine.