By Dan Peleschuk and Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) -Russian forces ramped up a winter assault in eastern Ukraine, bringing tens of thousands of freshly mobilised troops to the battlefield, while Kyiv expected Moscow to broaden its offensive as towns in the northeast and south came under fire.
Ukraine’s military said on Tuesday that 1,030 Russian troops were killed over 24 hours, the highest daily toll of the war. The figure could not be independently verified, and Russia has also claimed to have killed large numbers of Ukrainian troops in recent weeks. For its part, Russia said it had inflicted 6,500 Ukrainian casualties in the month of January.
Ukraine national security chief Oleksiy Danilov said in an interview on Tuesday that the Kremlin is expected to target the northeastern Kharkiv or southern Zaporizhzhia regions in a new thrust.
“Attempts at an offensive in either the Kharkiv or Zaporizhzhia direction will of course be made,” he told Reuters, speaking in his office in Kyiv. “How successful they’ll be will depend on us.”
The Ukraine Armed Forces said on Tuesday evening that more than 30 towns and villages in Kharkiv and 20 communities in Zaporizhzhia came under fire.
Top Ukrainian officials including President Volodymyr Zelenskiy have said Moscow will attempt to mount another major offensive with freshly mobilised troops in the coming weeks as the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion nears on Feb. 24.
“They need to have something to show before their people, and have a major desire to do something big, as they see it, by this date,” Danilov said.
After Russia failed to capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv last year and lost ground in the second half of 2022, Moscow is now making full use of hundreds of thousands of troops it called up in the autumn in its first mobilisation since World War Two.
The last few weeks have seen Russia boast of its first gains for half a year. But the progress has been incremental, with Moscow yet to capture a single major population centre in its winter campaign despite thousands of dead.
Fighting has focused for months around Ukrainian-held Bakhmut in eastern Donetsk province, a city with a pre-war population of around 75,000. Russia has made clear progress towards encircling it from both the north and south, but Kyiv says its garrison is holding fast.
“There will be a retreat from Bakhmut if there is a risk of encirclement,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleksiy Hetman said on Ukrainian Radio NV.
“There would be no sense in losing more people. Bakhmut does not have great strategic value. For the moment, we can hold our positions.”
Danilov echoed earlier predictions by Kyiv that Russia still wants to capture all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east that Moscow claimed as its own territory last year in referendums dismissed by Ukraine and the West as a sham.
Moscow has also launched an assault further south against Vuhledar, a Ukrainian-controlled bastion also in Donetsk province on high ground at the strategic intersection between the eastern and southern front lines.
NEW WEAPONS MONTHS AWAY
So far this year, Western countries have pledged hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles to Ukraine to give it the firepower and mobility to push through Russian lines and recapture territory later in 2023.
A new U.S. package of weapons is expected to include longer-range rockets, which would give Ukraine the ability to hit Russian supply lines in all of the territory it occupies in Ukraine’s mainland and parts of the Crimea Peninsula.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter he spoke on Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about new military aid, sanctions on Russia and “the preparations of important events.”
But it will take months before new weapons arrive, and meanwhile Russia has replenished its manpower. The Kremlin says Western supplies of arms only widen and extend the conflict.
“The U.S. and its allies are trying to prolong the conflict as much as possible,” Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday in a conference call with military officials.
“To do this, they have started supplying heavy offensive weapons, openly urging Ukraine to seize our territories. In fact, such steps are dragging NATO countries into the conflict and could lead to an unpredictable level of escalation.”
His use of the phrase “our territories” appeared to refer to four Ukrainian provinces Russia claimed to have annexed last year, as well as Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Michael Perry)