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Fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine amid signs Russia plans war-anniversary offensive

A soldier with the Ukrainian Land Forces loads an 82mm mortar. (Adriana M. Diaz-Brown/TNS)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The situation on the front line in eastern Ukraine has become tougher, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on February 1 as Russian forces pressed ahead with efforts on the ground to capture towns and cities in the Donetsk region while continuing air strikes against other locations.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s military said in its daily report early on February 1 that the enemy “has not paused its offensive actions in the Lyman and Bakhmut directions” in the eastern region of Donetsk.

Russia also kept pressing its attacks on the town of Vuhledar, some 150 kilometers southeast of the fighting in and around Bakhmut, which has been the focal point of the monthslong battle in Donetsk.

“A definite increase has been noted in the offensive operations of the occupiers on the front in the east of our country. The situation has become tougher,” Zelenskiy said in his evening video address.

Zelenskiy said the Russians were trying to make gains that they could show on the first anniversary of the war on February 24.

The fighting killed at least two people and wounded seven others in Kramatorsk. The head of the Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said a Russian rocket struck a residential building in Kramatorsk late on February 1.

Russian shelling of Bakhmut killed at least five civilians and wounded 10 on January 31, Ukraine’s presidential office said. Kyrylenko posted images of the shelling aftermath showing huge holes in residential buildings and saying that Russia is “actively deploying new military personnel.”

Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed Russian troops are “closing the ring” around Bakhmut, but the Kremlin-controlled paramilitary Wagner Group denied that Bakhmut was encircled.

The governor of the northern Chernihiv region, Vyacheslav Chaus, said four local residents died in the basement of a private house due to shelling by Russian troops on February 1. One person was injured and taken to a medical facility, Chaus said on Telegram.

The northern command of the Ukrainian military reported that Russian troops continued to shell border settlements in the Sumy and Chernihiv regions.

It was not possible to verify battlefield claims.

Serhiy Hayday, the regional governor in Ukraine’s Luhansk region, said earlier that Moscow’s forces were expelling residents near occupied parts of the front line so they can’t disclose Russian troop deployments to Ukrainian artillery forces.

“There is an active transfer of [Russian troops] to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February,” Hayday said.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov referred to a transfer of troops, saying Moscow could “try something” to mark the anniversary of the invasion last year. Reznikov, speaking to French broadcaster BFM, said Russian troops are massing at the border and, according to the Ukrainian military’s assessment, their number is more than the 300,000 called up in a mobilization in September.

Ukraine last week won pledges from the United States and Germany to send tanks to help it defend itself and has continued actively requesting more modern equipment, including fighter jets and long-range artillery, from its Western allies. The United States has ruled out any deliveries of F-16 fighter jets for now, but other partners have indicated they are more open to the idea.

The Kremlin has warned that Western military shipments could cause an escalation in the conflict.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reiterated that Russia will consider all weapons supplied by other countries “to be legitimate targets for Russia’s armed forces.”

Russia also warned Israel against supplying weapons to Ukraine after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahusaid he was considering doing so, including the so-called Iron Dome anti-missile defense system.

Netanyahu also said he is ready to act as a mediator in negotiations between Russia and Ukraine if both sides and the United States agreed.

Since the beginning of the Russian offensive last year, Israel has sought to maintain neutrality by adopting a cautious position toward Moscow. Israel has emphasized that it has more than a million citizens from the former Soviet Union living in Israel.