Ukraine’s top ground forces commander said his forces would soon launch a counter-offensive after Vladimir Putin’s spring advance has so far failed to achieve any significant victories.
Oleksandr Syrskyi also claimed that Putin’s “private army”, the Wagner Group mercenaries who have been at the front line of Moscow’s assault on eastern and southern Ukraine, “are losing considerable strength and are running out of steam”.
He was listing Ukrainian counter-offensives last year that recaptured swathes of land.
There was no immediate response from Moscow to suggestions its forces around the eastern town of Bakhmut were losing momentum.
But Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin issued statements in recent days, warning of a Ukrainian counter-assault.
On Monday, Prigozhin published a letter to Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, saying Ukraine aimed to cut off Wagner’s forces from Russia’s regular troops.
Independent reports from near the front line north of Bakhmut backed up suggestions that the Russian offensive in the area could be waning.
At a Ukrainian-held village west of Soledar, on Bakhmut’s northern outskirts, the intensity of the Russian bombardment noticeably lessened from two days earlier.
“It was really hot here a week ago, but in the last three days it has been more quiet,” said a Ukrainian soldier who used the call sign “Kamin”, or “Stone”.
“We can see this in the enemy’s air strikes. If before there were five-six air raids in a day, today we had only one helicopter attack,” said the soldier.
But Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that without a faster supply of arms the war could last years.
He stressed that the West had to increase and speed up its supply of weapons, again calling for long-range missiles, ammunition and modern aircraft, and impose additional sanctions on Russia.
“If Europe waits, the evil may have time to regroup and prepare for years of war,” a clearly frustrated Mr Zelensky said on Thursday in a video address to European Union leaders, delivered from a train.
The US has reportedly urged Kyiv to delay any counter-offensive until tanks and more heavy weapons have been supplied by the West.
At the EU summit, leaders approved a plan agreed by foreign ministers on Monday to send one million artillery shells to Ukraine over the next year. They also discussed global food security and sanctions on Russia.
Britain has pledged to supply armour piercing munitions containing depleted uranium to help destroy Russian tanks, a step Putin said would force a response from Russia as the weapons had “a nuclear component”.
Slovakia said on Thursday it had handed over the first four MiG-29 jets it has pledged to Ukraine, with the rest to be delivered in weeks.
A slowdown by Russia in Bakhmut could mean it is diverting its troops and resources to other areas.
Britain said on Thursday that Russian troops had made gains further north this month, partially regaining control over the approaches to the town of Kreminna. Intense battles were also under way further south.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov agreed with that assessment. He said on YouTube that Russia’s attacks on Bakhmut were decreasing, and it was shifting its efforts south to the town of Avdiivka.
Russia’s forces have become more active in areas to the north in the Kharkiv and Luhansk regions as well as central Zaporizhzhia and southern Kherson regions, he said.
Any shift in momentum in Bakhmut, if confirmed, would be remarkable given the town’s symbolic importance as the focus of Russia’s offensive, and the scale of the losses on both sides there in Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.
On the ground in Ukraine, front lines have largely been frozen since November. Ukraine had looked likely to pull out of Bakhmut weeks ago but decided to fight on.
Mr Zelensky had earlier on Thursday continued a tour of front-line provinces, visiting the Kherson region in the south a day after meeting troops near Bakhmut.
A video showed him meeting residents in Posad Pokrovske, a bombed-out village on the former Kherson front line recaptured in Ukraine’s last big advance last year.