© Reuters. Ukrainian servicemen look on from a military vehicle at their positions near a front line, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine February 1, 2023. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak
By Tom Balmforth
KYIV (Reuters) -Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged EU leaders during talks in Kyiv on Thursday to slap more sanctions on Russia, as Moscow’s forces pressed their offensive in eastern Ukraine and fired missiles into the city of Kramatorsk near the front line.
One missile destroyed an apartment building late on Wednesday in Kramatorsk, killing at least three people and wounding 18, police said, while Russia said on Thursday it had struck U.S.-made rocket launchers in the area.
The head of the European Commission pledged more EU aid for Ukraine as she arrived in Kyiv by train along with more than a dozen other senior EU officials for two days of talks seen as key to Ukraine’s hopes of one day joining the bloc.
“Russia is paying a heavy price (for the war) as our sanctions are eroding its economy, throwing it back by a generation. We will keep turning up the pressure further,” Ursula von der Leyen later told a joint news conference with Zelenskiy.
The West has imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, aiming to cripple its ability to wage a war that has devastated Ukrainian cities and towns, killed tens of thousands of people and forced millions to flee their homes.
Zelenskiy called for more sanctions, saying the pace had “slightly slowed” of late and that Moscow was adapting to them.
“This is a joint European task to reduce Russia’s ability to evade sanctions. And the faster and better this task is accomplished, the closer we will be to defeating the aggression of the Russian Federation,” he said.
Von der Leyen said the EU would have a new package of sanctions in place for the first anniversary of the war, the biggest armed conflict in Europe since World War Two.
But she avoided any commitment to fast-track Ukraine’s EU membership bid, which is expected to take years.
The team from Brussels will discuss sending more arms and money to Ukraine, increasing access for Ukrainian products to the EU, helping Kyiv cover energy needs, strengthening sanctions on Russia and prosecuting Russian leaders for the war.
‘UNDER THE RUBBLE’
Earlier, Zelenskiy gave another bleak assessment of the battlefield situation in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have been making incremental gains as the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion looms.
In Kramatorsk, a Russian Iskander-K tactical missile struck at 9:45 p.m. (1945 GMT) on Wednesday, police said.
“At least eight apartment buildings were damaged. One of them was completely destroyed,” they said in a Facebook (NASDAQ:) post.
“People may remain under the rubble.”
In its daily update, Russia’s defence ministry said on Thursday it had destroyed U.S.-made HIMARS and MLRS launch pads in an attack “in the region of Kramatorsk”. It made no reference to the strike on the residential building.
Kramatorsk is about 55 km (34 miles) northwest of Bakhmut, currently the main focus of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Russia, determined to make progress before Ukraine receives newly promised Western battle tanks and armoured vehicles, has picked up momentum on the battlefield and it announced advances north and south of Bakhmut, which has suffered persistent Russian bombardment for months.
“The enemy is trying to achieve at least something now to show that Russia has some chances on the anniversary of the invasion,” Zelenskiy said in a video address late on Wednesday.
Bakhmut and 10 towns and villages around it came under further Russian fire, the Ukrainian military said.
Russian forces are pushing from both the north and south to encircle Bakhmut, using superior troop numbers to try to cut it off from re-supply and force the Ukrainians out, Ukrainian military analyst Yevhen Dikiy said.
“The enemy is able to use its sole resource, which it has in excess – its men,” Dikiy told Espreso TV, describing a landscape to the northeast of Bakhmut “literally covered with corpses”.
Ukraine and its Western allies say Moscow has taken huge losses around Bakhmut, sending in waves of poorly equipped troops, including thousands of convicts recruited from prisons as mercenaries.
A former commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group who fled to Norway in January told Reuters he wanted to apologise for fighting in Ukraine and was speaking out to bring perpetrators of atrocities to justice.
“First of all, repeatedly, and again, I would like to apologise,” said 26-year-old Andrei Medvedev.
Ukraine has secured pledges of weapons from the West offering new capabilities – the latest expected this week to include rockets from the United States that would nearly double the range of Ukrainian forces.
“We’re focused on providing Ukraine the capability that it needs to be effective in its upcoming anticipated counter- offensive in the spring,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a visit to the Philippines on Thursday.
The new weaponry would put all of Russia’s supply lines in eastern Ukraine, as well as parts of Crimea, seized from Ukraine and annexed by Russia in 2014, within range of Ukrainian forces.
Moscow says such rockets will escalate the conflict but not change its course.
“The greater the range of the weapons supplied to the Kyiv regime the more we will have to push them back from territories which are part of our country,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state TV on Thursday.
Moscow claims to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces last year, in addition to Crimea.
President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine last February in a “special military operation” to “disarm” its neighbour, and now casts the campaign as a fight to defend Russia against an aggressive West. Ukraine and the West call it an illegal war to expand Russian territory.