NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine – Russian forces have shelled the entire front line in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian officials said, part of what appears to be the Kremlin’s scaled-back ambition to secure only the bulk of territory it has claimed.
The fiercest fighting was near the towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, the region’s governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a television interview. Five civilians were killed and two wounded in Ukrainian-controlled parts of Donetsk over the previous day, he said early on Friday, December 9.
“The entire front line is being shelled,” he said, adding that Russian troops were also trying to advance near Lyman, which was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November, one of a number of battlefield setbacks suffered by Russia in the past few months.
In Bakhmut and other parts of the Donetsk region that neighbors Luhansk province, Ukrainian forces countered with barrages from rocket launchers, a Reuters witness said.
“The Russians have intensified their efforts in Donetsk and Luhansk,” Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video post.
“They are now in a very active phase of attempting to conduct offensive operations. We are advancing nowhere but, rather, defending, destroying the enemy’s infantry and equipment wherever it tries to advance.”
In an early Friday report, the Ukrainian general staff said its forces had attacked Russian positions and troop assembly points in at least half a dozen towns in the south of Ukraine.
Russian losses amounted to about 240 wounded, with three ammunition depots and about various military equipment destroyed, it added.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
War aims changed?
President Vladimir Putin has given conflicting statements on the goals of the war but is now clear the aims include some expansion of Russia’s borders. This contrasts with comments at the start of Russia’s “special military operation” in February, when he said his plans did not include occupying Ukrainian land.
Putin on Friday repeated his accusation that the West was “exploiting” Ukraine and using its people as “cannon fodder” in a conflict with Russia, and said the West’s desire to maintain its global dominance was increasing the risks of conflict.
“They deliberately multiply chaos and aggravate the international situation,” Putin said in a video message to a summit of defence ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and a group of ex-Soviet states.
The Kremlin said on Thursday, December 8, it was set on securing at least the bulk of the territories in east and south Ukraine, but appeared to give up on seizing other land in the west and northeast that Ukraine has recaptured.
Russia proclaimed in October that it had annexed four provinces shortly after holding so-called referendums that were rejected as bogus and illegal by Ukraine, the West and most countries at the United Nations.
While Russia made clear it wanted to take full control of Donetsk and Luhansk – two largely Russian-speaking regions collectively known as the Donbas – it left unclear how much of the regions of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson it was annexing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says his troops will eventually drive Russia from all captured territory, including the Crimea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
In a reminder that Moscow maintains lines of communication with the West despite the war, the United States said Russia had freed US basketball player Brittney Griner in return for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
However, the Kremlin said on Friday the prisoner swap should not be seen as a step towards improving bilateral ties between Moscow and Washington, saying they remained “in a sorry state.”
Russian state media have cast the release of Bout as a political “win” for Putin
The White House said the prisoner swap would not change its commitment to the people of Ukraine.
The US House of Representatives passed a defense bill on Thursday that provides Ukraine with at least $800 million in additional security assistance next year.
The United States was also preparing to send Ukraine a $275 million military aid package offering new capabilities to defeat drones and strengthen air defenses, according to a document seen by Reuters and people familiar with the package.
Ukraine’s Zelenskiy in a video address late on Thursday accused Russian forces of leaving landmines, tripwire mines, mined buildings, cars and infrastructure in places they had abandoned under Ukrainian military pressure.
“This is perhaps even fiercer and more devious than missile terror,” said Zelenskiy, who paid tribute to four policemen killed by landmines in Kherson province.
“For there is no system against mines that could destroy at least part of the threat as our anti-aircraft systems do.” – Rappler.com