Ukrainian officials in the east, scene of the fiercest fighting in the war with Russia, said an anticipated fresh offensive by Moscow is underway, while President Volodymyr Zelensky said several European leaders were ready to supply aircraft he has sought.
Zelensky, who was due to return to Kyiv on Friday, said in Brussels that several European Union leaders told him at a summit on Thursday they were ready to equip Ukraine with aircraft including fighter jets. If confirmed, this would be one of the biggest shifts yet in Western support.
As the anniversary of Russia’s invasion approaches on Feb 24, Kyiv has predicted an aggressive onslaught from Moscow aimed at producing achievements it can trumpet at the one-year mark, after months of little movement.
Asked on Ukrainian television if he agreed that the Russian offensive had already begun, Pavlo Krylenko, governor of the eastern Donetsk region, said on Thursday: “Yes, definitely.”
Around eastern towns like Bakhmut, Avdiivka and Vuhledar that have witnessed some of the bloodiest battles of the war, “the enemy’s forces and means are escalating there with daily intensity. They are trying to… seize these areas and key cities… to score new successes,” he said.
The wider Donbas area of the east, comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk, has been one of Russia’s major objectives, and the Kremlin declared them in the autumn to be among four annexed territories after referendums decried as shams by the West.
“Over the past week to 10 days, the frequency of shelling has increased. The daily number of attacks has increased,” Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukrainian Radio NV on Thursday. “In real terms, this is part of the full-scale offensive planned by the Russians.”
He said there was a major new Russian assault around Kreminna, along a northern stretch of the eastern front, but that Moscow’s forces were “having no significant success.”
Reuters could not independently verify the battlefield accounts.
Kyiv expects weapons, aircraft
Zelenskiy gave no further details about the pledges by European leaders at the Brussels summit, and there was no immediate confirmation from any European countries.
But his remarks came amid signs that countries were edging closer to lifting one of the main taboos in military aid for Kyiv since Russia’s invasion last year.
Western countries that have provided Ukraine with arms have so far refused to send fighter jets or long-range weapons capable of striking deep inside Russia.
“Europe will be with us until our victory. I’ve heard it from a number of European leaders… about the readiness to give us the necessary weapons and support, including the aircraft,” Zelensky told a news conference.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak told Ukrainian TV: “We are holding talks, they are very intense. We will soon have a logistical understanding of when, where and how we can receive the instruments (aircraft and long-range weaponry) in addition to the armoured equipment.”
Zelenskiy began a European tour on Wednesday with a meeting in London with Britain’s Rishi Sunak and dinner in Paris with France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Olaf Scholz.
Sunak promised to train Ukrainian pilots to fly advanced NATO fighter jets. He stopped short of offering to supply the planes, but said nothing was off the table.
Zelensky said that some of what he had been promised in Paris by Macron and Scholz was still secret.
“There are certain agreements which are not public, but which are positive. I don’t want to prepare the Russian Federation, which is constantly threatening us with new aggressions,” he said.
Moscow warns West against escalation
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it would be Ukrainians who suffered if Britain or other Western countries supplied fighter jets to Kyiv, and that the line between indirect and direct Western involvement in the war was disappearing.
Such actions “lead to an escalation of tension, prolong the conflict and make the conflict more and more painful for Ukraine,” Peskov said.
Russian forces have been advancing recently for the first time in half a year, fortified with tens of thousands of freshly mobilised recruits, in relentless winter battles that both sides describe as some of the bloodiest of the war.
Russia said on Thursday it had destroyed four Ukrainian artillery depots in the Donetsk region. Ukrainian officials said more than 100 Russians had been killed on Wednesday in a strike on an airfield near the southern port of Berdyansk, which pro-Moscow forces captured early in the war.
The Berdyansk military administration said on Telegram that a radar station and an ammunition depot had also been damaged. It gave no further details, and Reuters was unable to immediately verify the claim.
Russia launched the war it calls a “special military operation” to combat what it describes as a security threat from Ukraine’s ties to the West. Ukraine and the West say Russia’s invasion is an unprovoked land grab.