Ukraine hails gains in Bakhmut as Zelensky wins more arms in Europe

Since last week, the Ukrainian military has started to push Russian forces back in and around the battlefield city of Bakhmut

Published : 15 May 2023, 02:57 PM
Updated : 15 May 2023, 02:57 PM

Ukraine on Monday hailed its first substantial battlefield advances for six months as President Volodymyr Zelensky won pledges of new long-range drones in Britain to add to a haul of Western arms for a counteroffensive against Russian invaders. 

Since last week, the Ukrainian military has started to push Russian forces back in and around the battlefield city of Bakhmut, its first significant offensive operations since its troops recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November. 

"The advance of our troops along the Bakhmut direction is the first success of offensive actions in the defence of Bakhmut," Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of Ground Forces, said in a statement on the Telegram messaging app. 

"The last few days have shown that we can move forward and destroy the enemy even in such extremely difficult conditions," he said. "We are fighting with fewer resources than the enemy. At the same time, we are able to ruin its plans." 

The battle for the small eastern city has become the longest and bloodiest of the war and has totemic significance for Russia, which has no other prizes to show for a winter campaign that cost thousands of lives. 

Over the past half of a year, Kyiv has held its troops on the defensive while Moscow mounted its campaign, sending hundreds of thousands of fresh reservists and mercenaries into Europe's bloodiest ground combat since World War Two. 

Kyiv is now preparing a counteroffensive using hundreds of new tanks and armoured vehicles sent by Western countries since the start of this year, aiming to recapture the sixth of Ukraine's territory that Moscow claims to have annexed. 

Zelensky met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in London on Monday, the latest stop in a tour that brought him to Rome, Berlin and Paris over the past three days, pocketing major new pledges of weapons along the way. 

Britain, which last week became the first Western country to offer Ukraine long-range cruise missiles, followed that up during Zelenskiy's visit on Monday with a pledge of drones that could strike at a range of 200 km (125 miles). 

Sunak's government also said it would soon start training Ukrainian pilots to fly fighter jets, although it would not provide planes for Ukraine as Kyiv wants US F-16s which Britain's air force does not use. 

Zelenskiy described the new weapons pledged by the Europeans as "important and powerful". The priority during his talks has been "our counteroffensive actions. I am very pleased with the achievements and agreements", he said. 

Sunak said the war was at a "pivotal moment". 

"The UK will remain steadfast in supporting Ukraine and its people to defend is important for the Kremlin to also know that we are not going away. We are here for the long term." 

The Kremlin, for its part, said it did not believe the added British hardware would change the course of the conflict. 

Fifteen months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of its fellow former Soviet neighbour, Ukraine's expected shift back onto the offensive is a major turning point. 

Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops back from the capital Kyiv a year ago, and recaptured ground in two major offensives in the second half of 2022, but have since endured a punishing Russian assault while waiting for arms to arrive. 

Ukrainian officials generally give few details about their offensive operations while they are under way, but have reported substantial gains retaking territory on both the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut over the past seven days. 

Moscow has acknowledged retreating north of the city, and the head of the Wagner private army fighting inside Bakhmut has said Russia's regular forces have fled positions on the northern and southern flanks. 

Ukrainian officials portray the fighting in that area as localised advances, rather than the major counteroffensive push which they say has yet to get under way. 

The public rift between Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin and the commanders of regular Russian forces has deepened over the past two weeks, with Prigozhin releasing daily audio and video messages denouncing the Russian military brass. 

However, both he and the Kremlin dismissed a Washington Post report citing US intelligence leaks that Prigozhin had offered to betray the positions of regular Russian forces in January in return for Kyiv pulling back some troops in Bakhmut. The Post said Ukraine had rejected the offer. Reuters could not corroborate the report.