President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed Friday that Ukrainians will fight “for as long as we can” to hold the key eastern city of Bakhmut, as Moscow ramps up pressure in the eastern region of Ukraine.
“Nobody will give away Bakhmut,” Zelensky said during a meeting with European Union leaders. “We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress.”
“If weapon (supplies) are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the occupiers from the Donbas, which was occupied since 2014,” he president added.
Moscow says its troops are encircling Bakhmut from several directions and fighting to take control of a road that is a crucial supply route for Ukrainian forces.
Shortly after Zelensky made his remarks, air raid sirens blared in Ukraine’s capital and across the country, but there were no immediate reports of new air strikes.
European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have traveled to Kyiv to show support for Ukraine as the first anniversary of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion looms, raising concerns of a dramatic escalation of hostilities.
Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said new battle tanks pledged by NATO nations last week would serve as an “iron fist” in Kyiv’s counteroffensive to smash through Russian defensive lines.
In a recent interview with a French TV network, Reznikov said that the Kremlin was gearing up for a new offensive on two fronts in the coming weeks that could involve up to 500,000 troops.
The minister said the Ukrainian military will work to prepare for a counter-offensive ahead of Russia’s anticipated onslaught, stressing that Ukraine “cannot lose the initiative” on the battlefield.
Russia has been stepping up pressure on Ukrainian forces in the east, where Kyiv says Moscow is sending thousands of soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries to their deaths for small gains.
“They bring in men from their draft and try systematically to find places to break through our defenses,” Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces eastern front, told Ukrainian radio NV.
Moscow says a major objective in Ukraine is securing the rest of Donetsk province, one of four it claimed to have unilaterally annexed last year. Its forces have claimed incremental gains over the past week around Bakhmut.
A Belarusian volunteer fighting for Ukraine inside the city said there was no sign yet that Ukrainian forces were planning to pull out. “For the moment it’s the opposite, the positions are being reinforced where the Russians are trying to cut us off… We’re holding for now.”
Zelensky, flanked by the EU leaders at a news conference, said European sanctions should aim to ensure Russia cannot rebuild its military capability as Moscow’s forces seek to regain battlefield momentum.
Ukraine has secured pledges of modern weapons from the West — the latest expected this week to include long-range rockets from the US.
The rockets, known as Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB), could target all Russian-occupied territory on Ukraine’s mainland, as well as parts of the Crimea peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014.
Zelensky has called for more punitive EU sanctions against Russia, though new measures the bloc is preparing for the first anniversary of the invasion are set to fall short of his government’s demands.
Ukraine applied to join the EU days after Russia invaded last year. The EU has embraced the application, although it has rebuffed Ukraine’s calls for a fast track to membership while the country is at war.
EU officials have listed multiple membership requirements, from political and economic stability to adopting various EU laws. The process is likely to take years.
“The simple truth is that we are not there yet,” an EU official said.
The EU has demanded more measures from Kyiv to tackle what is perceived as endemic state corruption. Zelensky has announced firings and investigations of an array of officials in the past two weeks.
Asked at the news conference with Zelensky about Kyiv’s membership bid, Von der Leyen said: “There are no rigid timelines, but there are goals that you have to reach.”
With Post wires