New Russian offensive underway in Ukraine, says NATO


By Pavel Polityuk

KYIV, Feb 14 (Reuters) - The Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was facing heavy artillery fire as the NATO chief backed reports from officials in the area that Russia had launched a major new offensive, days before the first anniversary of its invasion.

Ukrainian defenders in the eastern city, who have held out for months, were defending new ground attacks under heavy shelling, Ukrainian military officials said.

Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks in one settlement of the Kharkiv region, about five settlements in the Luhansk region and six in the Donetsk region, including in Bakhmut, over the past 24 hours, Ukraine's military said early on Tuesday.

Positions in Bakhmut have been fortified and only people with a military role were being allowed in, while any civilians who wanted to leave would have to brave the incoming fire, a deputy battalion commander said on Monday.

"There is not a single square metre in Bakhmut that is safe or that is not in range of enemy fire or drones," Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region, told the Ukrainian national broadcaster late on Monday.

Bakhmut is a prime objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin, and its capture would give Russia a new foothold in the Donetsk region and a rare victory after months of setbacks.

"We see how they are sending more troops, more weapons, more capabilities," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels, saying it was the start of a new offensive.

The Russian assault on Bakhmut has been spearheaded by mercenaries of the Wagner group, who in the past three days, have made small gains in the northern outskirts of Bakhmut, the British defence ministry said on Tuesday.

The tactical Russian advance to the south of Bakhmut had likely made little progress, the ministry said in a regular bulletin.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russian forces were trying to surround Bakhmut.

"Thank you to every one of our soldiers who are preventing the occupiers from encircling Bakhmut ... and who are holding our key positions at the front," Zelenskiy said in an evening address.

The Donetsk and Luhansk regions make up the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial heartland, now partially occupied by Russia which wants full control.

Russian forces were aiming to capture the entire Luhansk region and reach its administrative boundaries, said its governor, Serhiy Haidai.

"They've already brought a large quantity of manpower and equipment and we're already recording an increase in shelling, both by artillery and from the air," he told media.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield reports.


The U.N. human rights office said on Monday it had recorded 7,199 civilian deaths and 11,756 wounded since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion, mostly from shelling and missile and air strikes. However, it believed the actual figure was far higher.

Russia launched what it calls its "special military operation" to "denazify" Ukraine and protect Russian speakers. Western leaders say it was nothing more than a land grab.

Moldova's president accused Russia on Monday of planning to use foreign saboteurs to bring down her leadership and use it in the war against Ukraine. Russia rejected that.

"Such claims are completely unfounded and unsubstantiated," Russia's foreign ministry said in a statement on Tuesday.

Zelenskiy said last week his country had uncovered a Russian intelligence plan "for the destruction of Moldova". Days later the government of the country, which borders Ukraine and Romania, resigned.

Russia denied last year wanting to intervene in Moldova after authorities in Transdniestria, a breakaway region that has survived for three decades with support from Moscow, said they had been targeted by a series of attacks.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby on Monday said reports of the plot had not been independently confirmed but were "deeply concerning" and "certainly not outside the bounds of Russian behaviour".

With Ukraine desperate for more weapons, defence ministers from several NATO allies will meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss more military aid.

On the eve of the meeting, Ukraine's top general and the most senior U.S. Army commander in Europe discussed military aid and training in a telephone conversation. Ukraine says it needs fighter jets and long-range missiles.

Stoltenberg said he expected the issue of aircraft to be discussed, but that Ukraine needed support on the ground now.

A NATO source said it would increase the stockpiling of ammunition as Ukraine was burning through shells much faster than Western countries could produce.

Training of Ukrainian forces on the Leopard 2 and other modern battle tanks that are to boost their defences is underway in several European countries, including Poland, Britain and Germany.

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(Reporting by Max Hunder, Olena Harmash, Tim Heritage, Pavel Polityuk, Bart H. Meijer, Charlotte Van Campenhout, Ron Popeski and Elaine Monaghan; Writing by Costas Pitas and Lincoln Feast; Editing by Michael Perry, Robert Birsel)

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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