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.
“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 defense ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and a group of ex-Soviet states.
The Kremlin said on Thursday 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 Zelenskyy says his troops will eventually drive Russia from all captured territory, including the Crimea peninsula annexed by Russia in 2014.
Ukraine’s SBU security service accused a senior Orthodox Christian cleric on Friday of engaging in anti-Ukrainian activity by supporting Russian policies in social media posts.
The Orthodox Church in Russia has backed Moscow’s invasion, and Kyiv says some clerics in Ukraine could be taking orders from Moscow.
Under tough new legislation, a Russian court found opposition politician Ilya Yashin guilty on Friday of spreading “fake information” about the army, Russian news agencies reported. Sentencing was due later in the day.
Yashin had discussed in a YouTube video evidence uncovered by Western journalists of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Moscow denies committing war crimes.
In a rare instance of cooperation amid the war, Russia freed U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner in return for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
A plane carrying Griner landed in the United States early on Friday, nearly 10 months after she was detained in Russia on drug charges, while television images showed Bout being hugged by his mother and wife after landing in Moscow.
However, the Kremlin said 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.”
The White House said the prisoner swap would not change its commitment to the people of Ukraine.
Russian and U.S. representatives were expected to meet in Istanbul on Friday to discuss a set of “difficult questions” including visas and embassy staffing levels, Russia’s TASS news agency reported, citing an unnamed source.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a defense bill on Thursday that provides Ukraine with at least $800 million in additional security assistance next year.
Ukraine’s Zelenskyy 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 Zelenskyy, 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.”