In Ukraine’s Donbas, ten years of war and Russification

On April 7, 2014, a coup by pro-Russian militants in the city of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine was the spark that ignited the Donbas war. In the heart of this industrial region, populated at the time by six million mostly Russian-speaking inhabitants, the armed confrontation began between an expansionist Russia and a Ukraine aspiring to consolidate its independence. The Donbas has become a desolate landscape after ten years of war, and Russification has been brutally imposed.

Mentioned in international news bulletins during the past ten years of war in the Donbas, the names of dozens of towns like Bakhmut or Avdiivka  became known far beyond Ukraine’s borders. These places now lie in ruins, along with the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol and Donetsk International Airport

With the benefit of historical perspective, the battlegrounds in Donbas appear to be the precursor of Russia’ s large-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

Donetsk and Luhansk, the two administrative regions, or oblasts, which make up Ukraine’s Donbas region, were officially annexed by Russia in September 2022. According to Moscow, they are now part of the Russian Federation. This annexation is deemed illegal by the Ukrainians, who still control part of the region, and by the vast majority of the international community.

Ten years after the fighting began, the Donbas remains the scene of bloody trench warfare, resembling a modern-day version of the Battle of Verdun. According to military analysts, the Ukrainians fire up to 60,000 artillery shells a month across the 1,000-kilometre-long front line, while their Russian adversaries can fire between 300,000 and 600,000 shells.

At the heart of Russian and Soviet mythologies

The region, named after the Donets river and its mining basin (Donets basin), has been part of Ukraine since it became an independent state in 1991. Larger than the Netherlands, the Donbas was formerly part of the Russian Empire, and then the USSR.

The region’s largest city, Donetsk, entered the industrial age thanks to a Welshman, John Hughes, who in 1869 founded a huge metallurgical complex of coal mines and foundries that revolutionised the local economy. By 1900, 68% of the Russian empire’s coal was extracted in the Donetsk basin.

According to an imperial census carried out in 1897, a third of the Donbas population were Russians attracted to the region by the development of mining and heavy industry. In the same census the Tsarist administration recorded that Ukrainians made up half the population while minority communities included Jews, Tatars, Germans and Greeks.

In the years 1924-1961, the town was named “Stalino”. It was the scene of the exploits of the coal miner Alekseï Stakhanov, whose prodigious output made him a champion of Soviet productivity and a hero of Stalinist propaganda. During the Soviet era, from Moscow’s perspective, the Donbas and its workforce were an industrial bastion – and an integral part of Russia.

“Donbas in the heart of Russia”. Soviet poster, 1921. Wikimedia Commons © Auteur inconnu. Wikimedia Commons

“In the Soviet imagination, Donbas was the furnace of the entire Soviet Union,” explains historian Galia Ackerman. “With the rise of industrialisation, many Russian skilled workers and engineers arrived in the region. The Donbas was very strongly Russified in the 1930s.” 

In 1991, however, 83% of the population of the Donbas region voted in favour of Ukrainian independence. In the years that followed, the predominantly Russian-speaking population struggled with the transition to a post-communist system, a period marked by de-industrialisation and a severe economic crisis.

In every Ukrainian presidential election over the following decades, voters in Donbas, like those in other regions of eastern Ukraine, cast their votes for political parties close to Russia.

In the 2010 elections, Viktor Yanukovych ‘s Party of Regions won 80-90% of the vote against the pro-European party of former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Just prior to the outbreak of the conflict in 2014, the Donbas was “a blighted region where the population was impoverished and greatly missed the Soviet Union”, says Ackerman. “There were local mafias and a number of oligarchs who had taken over most of the heavy industry. There were towns where all life depended on the boss – social services, medicine, everything.” Many journalists have observed that these local bosses also controlled the media and tolerated no opposition.

Secession, and self-proclaimed people’s republics

In the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, parties favouring closer ties with the EU had prevailed. On February 22, 2014, the Ukrainian parliament voted to remove pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Donetsk and then to Russia.  The parliamentary deputies in Kyiv then quickly repealed the law making Russian one of the country’s official languages.

The next day, anti-Maidan demonstrations broke out in Donbas and in Russian-speaking cities elsewhere in Ukraine, notably Odesa. Russian forces seized strategic sites in Crimea on February 27, then completed the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in just three weeks.

Anti-Maidan protests in Ukraine continued throughout March. In Western countries, these demonstrators began to be referred to as “pro-Russian separatists”. In Kyiv, they were described as terrorists.

The Russian state media began referring to a “Russian Spring” in Ukraine, and labelled supporters of the new pro-European Ukrainian leadership as fascists. 

For Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the war in Ukraine at Glasgow University, “Donbas is certainly Russian-speaking, but there was no organised separatism in Donbas before 2014. It’s not a region that had organised separatist aspirations before that.”

On April 7, 2014, a group of around 1,000 pro-Russian activists seized the buildings and weapons stores of the Ukrainian security service, the SBU,  in Donetsk and Luhansk. On April 12, another armed group, led by a former colonel of the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) occupied several police and SBU buildings in Sloviansk, and a similar scenario unfolded in Kramatorsk. “The whole of the Donbas seemed destined for the same fate as Crimea,” write the military historians Michel Goya and Jean Lopez in their book “L’ours et le renard: Histoire immédiate de la guerre en Ukraine” (The Bear and the Fox: Immediate history of the war in Ukraine).

In yellow, the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that make up Ukraine's Donbas region. The Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014.
In yellow, the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts that make up Ukraine’s Donbas region. The Crimean peninsula was annexed by Russia in 2014. © Studio graphique FMM

According to Goya and Lopez, the Russian regime then decided on a strategy “aimed at the partition of Ukraine”, its efforts to subjugate the entire country having twice been thwarted, in 2005 during the Orange Revolution, then in 2013-2014 during the Maidan Uprising.

The historians note that “the Kremlin has no shortage of ideologues to theorise about the creation of a buffer state and to revive the old Tsarist term ‘New Russia’ ” – a term designating Ukrainian provinces “where Russian speakers are in a relative majority or significant minority,”  including the provinces of Kharkiv, Luhansk, Donetsk, Dniepropetrovsk, Zaporijjia, Mikolayev, Kherson and Odesa.

For the geographer and diplomat Michel Foucher, the methods Russia used to seize power and annex territory, applied so smoothly in Crimea, were once again put to use in April 2014. “The historical argument, the role of special forces, the use of violence, a false pretence of a referendum, all of this is replicated in the Donbas,” he says. On May 11, 2014, two referendums – not recognised by Ukraine or Western countries – were held in Donetsk and Luhansk. The “yes” vote for independence from Ukraine won massively in both cases, and marked the creation of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR).

The first Donbas war: April 2014 – February 2015

The day after the pro-Russian separatists took power, Kyiv immediately launched an “anti-terrorist operation”. Its army was still poorly organised, and relied on volunteer battalions often drawn from the nationalist and radical movements like the Azov Brigade or Pravy Sektor.

Then came a sequence of troop movements and armed clashes. In July, pro-Ukrainian forces pushed back the separatists at Mariupol, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut. On July 17,  a Malaysia Airlines airliner carrying 298 passengers and crew was shot down by surface-to-air missiles in eastern Ukraine over territory controlled by pro-Russian forces.

In August, pro-Kyiv forces were on the verge of retaking the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Faced with the deteriorating military situation, Moscow sent reinforcements. “Russian armed forces entered the Donbas probably at the end of July and in August,” says Aliyev. “They were certainly already present in large numbers and several Russian brigades were deployed in Ukraine, although Russia obviously denied all this.”

A Ukrainian flag flies over the control tower of Donetsk  International Airport during an artillery battle between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian forces in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine,Oct. 17, 2014
A Ukrainian flag flies over the traffic control tower of Donetsk International Airport during an artillery battle between pro-Russian rebels and Ukrainian government forces in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, Friday, Oct. 17, 2014. © Dmitry Lovetsky, AP

“By the end of August, the number of Russian soldiers in Ukraine was between 3,500 and 6,500,” write Goya and Lopez, enabling the pro-Russian forces to launch a lightning offensive that was only halted by the signing of the first in the series of Minsk agreements, which established a ceasefire on September 4, 2014.

On January 14, 2015, a new Russian offensive was launched in support of the “separatist” forces. It resulted in the capture of Donetsk International Airport and the fall of the Debaltseve pocket after very intense fighting.

On February 12, 2015, the so-called Minsk II agreements formalised the de facto partition of Ukrainian territory, marking a victory for Russia.

In the years that followed, and until the full-scale Russian attack on February 24, 2022, “violations of the ceasefire and the multiple truces, small-scale attacks and artillery fire hardly ever ceased, without the line of contact between the forces really moving. The war in Donbas killed 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers and 3,000 to 5,000 civilians” on both sides, note Goya and Lopez.

Separatism or proxy war?

In Ukraine, many people blamed Europeans and Americans for their passivity in the face of the Russian aggression in 2014. From Kyiv’s point of, the “pro-Russian separatists” were being guided by Moscow – the separatists would never have taken up arms to protect their identity and language without Moscow’s endorsement and active support.

For the analyst Aliyev, the outbreak of war in the Donbas was the first step towards Russia’s large-scale military intervention in Ukraine. “Until 2022, Russia maintained a permanent military presence in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, which varied in size depending on the situation. During periods of intense confrontation with Ukraine, regular military personnel were deployed in greater numbers. At other times, the security services of the Russian military sent units to help the local separatists”, he explains.

As the conflict progressed, local players with regional ambitions – such as Alexander Zakharchenko, the first leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic – were eliminated.  Considered insufficiently compliant by his Russian allies, Zakharchenko was assassinated in a 2018 car bomb attack. His counterpart in the Luhansk People’s Republic was replaced on Moscow’s orders. Since then, the two breakaway republics have been led by political figures who have pledged allegiance to the Kremlin.

“Between 2016 and 2022, these two entities became almost entirely dependent on the Russian Federation in every way: financially, economically and militarily. Moscow paid salaries, pensions and so on. It is probably from this period onwards that we can speak of Russia’s governance by proxy,” says Aliyev.

The second Donbas war and the nibbling away of Ukraine’s territory

On February 21, 2022, three days before the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russia recognised the independence and sovereignty of the two self-proclaimed separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk. On February 24, Russian troops launched an all-out assault on Ukrainian territory, notably from Belarus, Crimea and Donbas.

In the first days of the war, Russian forces advanced across Ukraine, only to be halted by the Ukrainian army and territorial defence volunteers.

After the failure of the Russian advance toward Kyiv, followed by its withdrawal from the northeast of Ukraine at the end of March, Russia officially declared that the real aim of the “special operation”, as the Kremlin called it, was the “liberation of the Donbas”.

In a speech on February 24, Vladimir Putin claimed to want to disarm and “denazify” the whole of Ukraine.

The front line in Donbas: Russian armed forces control the territories to the east of the current front line (the red line). The front line between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces from 2015 to Febru
The front line in Donbas: Russian armed forces control the territories to the east of the current front line (the red line). The front line between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces from 2015 to February 2022 is indicated by the yellow line. © Studio graphique FMM

In May and June 2022, Ukrainian forces were forced to evacuate Lyman, Severodonetsk and Lyssychansk in the Luhansk region. Further south, Russian troops succeeded in taking Mariupol after a bloody siege. This industrial port of 400,000 inhabitants on the Sea of Azov was mercilessly bombed.

Seventy percent of the city was destroyed, including the theatre that served as a refuge for civilians. According to the Ukrainian authorities, at least 20,000 inhabitants perished in the fighting. Azovstal, Europe’s largest steelworks, had been built “in the 1950s with underground shelters to house 30,000 people in the event of a nuclear war” and was completely destroyed “after being shelled with 3-ton bombs”, according to Goya and Lopez.

A Ukrainian fighter belonging to the Azov regiment in the basement of the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol on May 10, 2022.
A Ukrainian fighter belonging to the Azov regiment in the basement of the Azovstal steel complex in Mariupol on May 10, 2022. © Dmytro Kozatsky, AP

After a successful counter-offensive in September 2022 that enabled Ukraine to retake a number of localities in the two Donbas oblasts, the main clash took place in Bakhmut, which the mercenaries of Russia’s Wagner Group finally captured on May 25, 2023. The long bloody battle, referred to by combatants as a “meat grinder”, resulted in the total destruction of this town of 70,000 inhabitants.

After a new Ukrainian counter-offensive in the summer of 2023 – this time without territorial gains – Russian forces resumed their strategy of nibbling away at the front line and seized the small town of Avdiivka in February 2024, at the cost of heavy casualties and the town’s total destruction.

On the defensive, Ukrainian forces have since begun to reinforce the fortifications of the Donbas front line in order to hold out against an enemy that is trying to crush them via a deluge of artillery shells. “The battle of Donbas: ‘destroying a lot and advancing a little’ “, note Goya and Lopez, describing Russian tactics.

“The Russians are adapting objectives and goals according to the reality on the ground, they are literally trying to seize and occupy every piece of land in Ukraine. That seems to be their objective at the moment,” says Aliyev.

The ‘New Russia’?

In the part of the Donbas that has been outside Ukrainian sovereignty for ten years, a return to the pre-2014 situation now seems highly unlikely. The breakaway Ukrainian republics that seceded in 2014 have since 2022 become official Russian territories, where the ruble circulates and a large proportion of the inhabitants have acquired Russian citizenship.

In March 2024, for the first time, the inhabitants of Donbas took part in a Russian presidential election, as did the inhabitants of other Ukrainian areas partially occupied by the Russian army such as Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, under strong pressure from the new authorities.

“Russification began in 2014. They changed the textbooks. They simply killed or imprisoned or drove away all those who were pro-Ukrainian. We mustn’t forget that there are nearly a million Donbas inhabitants who fled to Ukraine during the occupation of Donbas by pro-Russian and Russian forces,” Ackerman says.

Given the restricted access to this densely populated industrial region, it is difficult to accurately assess the destruction, reconstruction and degree of Russification in the territories conquered by Russia.

In August 2022, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Marat Khusnullin presented Vladimir Putin with a plan to rebuild Mariupol within three years, including the redevelopment of the devastated Azovstal steelworks industrial zone, which was to be converted into a “technology hub”.

Since then, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu has made a series of visits to the seaside city – not to mention the Russian president’s visit in March 2023 – with the aim of turning Mariupol into a showcase for the “New Russia” (“Novorossiya”).

Russian television frequently reports from Mariupol on the construction of brand new apartment blocks, schools and medical centres. “There’s a massive influx of Russians to Mariupol because it’s a city by the sea, and the sales pitch to Russians is ‘Come join us, real estate is cheap’. The town is being completely rebuilt, the incoming population replacing those that have left,” explains historian Ackerman.

People stand near the sculpture of the name of the city of Mariupol written in Russian and painted in the colours of the Russian national flag during celebration of Russia Day in the city on June 12,
People stand near the sculpture of the name of the city of Mariupol written in Russian and painted in the colours of the Russian flag during celebrations of Russia Day in the city on June 12, 2022. © AP photo

Faced with Russian expansionism, European diplomacy seems to have no influence at all on the Russia-Ukraine war that has been raging for ten years on the fringes of Europe.

The Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015, sponsored by France and Germany, were a resounding failure.

In February 2023, French geographer and diplomat Michel Foucher estimated that “the military situation on the ground could lead to a kind of freeze around stable, well-defended front lines on both sides, without any agreed settlement or even any ceasefire”.

After a decade of war in the Donbas, the question diplomats will have to consider in years to come is how to determine where the EU ends and where Russia begins.

This article has been translated from the original in French. 

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Tucker Spreading Fake Doctored Russian Propaganda About Ukraine Losing? Would Fox News Even ALLOW That?

Yes, we know, Tucker Carlson has been playing his interview with Elon Musk the past two nights, and it has been overstuffed with loser divorced dad incel moments to make fun of, like when Elon got that look on his face that says “Is my hand in my pants right now?” while he talked about how abortion and birth control interfere with his weird breeding desires. Or when Elon said, “I’m very familiar with space and stuff.” We will make fun of those things very soon.

First we want to talk about another story related to Tucker and the Discord leaker and Russia’s war in Ukraine, where Tucker openly takes the side of the vile, genocidal, amoral aggressors. (Russia.)

Tucker has been lying and misleading his viewers about the latest accused leaker of classified information pretty much since the get-go, trying to turn the loser into some hero for the (Russian) cause of revealing the TRUTH about what’s going on in in Ukraine. (Not the truth.) He’s also been using facts and figures from the documents to convince his very idiot viewers that the presence of 14 US special forces attached to the embassy in Kyiv means Joe Biden has been lying and America is in a HOT WAR with Ukraine.

Tucker So Mad Nobody Talking About How Leaker Exposed Secret HOT WAR Between Russia And 14 US Troops

But, you see, certain things in those documents had themselves been altered while they were making the rounds on the dork nerd Discord/4Chan/Reddit internet. Certain things had been altered in a specifically Russian propaganda direction, to make it look like, for example, seven Ukrainians were dying for every Russian killed.

The Wall Street Journalreported this weekend on an American spreader of Russian propaganda named Sarah Bils, who ran and/or participated in a network of spreaders of Russian propaganda who posed as a Russian blogger named “Donbass Devushka.” (Translation: “Donbas Girl.” You’ll note that “Donbas” is the name of one of the regions in eastern Ukraine the Russians want to claim as their own and where at the beginning of the war they wanted the world to believe the people would greet them with flowers and blowjobs. It’s where Putin declared “independence” for the two republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, so that he might liberate them from their Ukrainian Nazi occupiers. “Donbass” is the Russian spelling.)

Bils is a former NCO from the US Navy, and the WSJ reports she was stationed at Whidbey Island in Washington state up until last year. Meanwhile, she’s doing this pro-Russian shit online. She says 15 people people all over the world control the “Donbass Devushka” account.

Indeed, it sounds like this account’s dissemination of some of the materials allegedly leaked by Jack Teixeira — shit that had been on the nerd internet for a while and hardly noticed — was what got the attention of Russian social media, which in turn got the attention of the Defense Department. Nobody cared about these documents until April 5, when this network of Russian propagandists that was actively supporting “our men on the front” — Russians — started putting them up on Telegram. Bils says she was not the member who posted this stuff, but rather that she took it down some days later.

But somewhere between Teixeira trying to impress his nerd friends on Discord by posting these documents and these Kremlin mouthpieces posting them on Telegram, some of the information on the documents got tweaked:

Some of the slides reposted on the Telegram account overseen by Ms. Bils had been altered from the otherwise identical photographs allegedly posted by Airman Teixeira on Discord—changed to inflate Ukrainian losses and play down Russian casualties. A subsequent post on the Donbass Devushka Telegram channel, on April 12, denied that the image had been doctored by the administrators.

“We would never edit content for our viewers,” the post said.

Take that as you will.

So that’s where the claim came from that SEVEN UKRAINIANS were dying for every Russian casualty. Have a heart, people! How could you want the Ukrainians to keep fighting if Russia is just massacring them? It’s not a fair fight! We should probably all get behind some kind of “peace plan” for Ukraine that involves giving Vladimir Putin as much of sovereign Ukraine as he wants while we all tongue all over Putin’s taint.

It’s the only humane solution, right?

Tucker Carlson sure thought so, when he started spreading the doctored Russian propaganda on Thursday night. Mediaite summarizes:

Malcontent News first reported on Sunday that Tucker Carlson used the “edited version” of the documents posted by Donbass Devushka’s Telegram channel to “claim Ukraine was suffering a 7-1 troop loss ratio and was ‘losing the war.’”

Indeed, last Thursday in an angry rant in which Carlson accused both President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin of committing “crimes” related to supporting Ukraine fend off the Russian invasion, Carlson cited that statistic.

“The second thing we learned from these slides is that despite direct U.S. involvement, Ukraine is in fact losing the war. Seven Ukrainians are being killed for every Russian. Ukrainian air defenses have been utterly degraded. Ukraine is losing. The Biden administration is perfectly aware of this,” Carlson declared. Carlson has long claimed Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is going far better than the media has reported, all while remaining a fierce critic of Ukraine’s leadership.

Here is a tweet from an investigative journo about it:

And here is Rachel Maddow talking about Tucker:

Oh yes, weep for the poor Ukrainians, who are totally losing the war, for whom all hope is lost! Why would you force them to keep fighting like this if seven of them are dying for every Russian? Are you some kind of MONSTER?

Only Tucker Carlson and his ideological pals truly care about the plight of the desperate Ukrainians. And he read some stuff a fake Russian propaganda blogger posted that’s just really concerning him right now.

As far as what’s really going on in Ukraine, Cathy Young writes at The Bulwark that most of the people pushing the narrative that we really should be reeling over the information in these leaks are indeed propagandists for Russia, the Putin apologists who have a fundamental and sick need to believe Ukraine is losing.

But Young says even some more mainstream media is taking the bait, and should cut that shit out. She argues that from the perspectives of the Ukrainians and their supporters, the leaks “[contain] essentially nothing new, at least as far as the war in Ukraine is concerned.” She goes through all the things that are supposed to be sorts of shattering revelations and shows the receipts on how people have been talking about them for months.

And, she notes, the leaks contain a hell of a lot that’s embarrassing for Russia, stuff that’s clearly driving some of their propaganda-spreaders quite batshit. (She’s got the receipts on that too.)

So, you know, chill the fuck out.

Read the whole thing, as they say in internet circles.

And don’t listen to Tucker Carlson.

Y’all hear his employer is paying out $787.5 million to a voting machine company as a penalty for brazenly and knowing lying to its gullible idiot viewers about that company after the 2020 election? And that a lot of those lies came from his show?

And here we all thought they were so credible and above reproach.


Follow Evan Hurst on Twitter right here

And once that doesn’t exist, I’m also giving things a go at the Mastodon (@[email protected]) and at Post!

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‘We have to take more risks’: Ukrainian forces hold the line as battle for Donbas heats up

From our special correspondent in Donbas – Nearly a year after the invasion of Ukraine, Russian troops are trying to seize the moment by overwhelming Ukrainian defences before the deployment of promised new weapons from Western nations. Ukrainian forces are struggling to hold the line with outdated equipment against the 320,000 Russian soldiers currently amassed in the Donbas region, according to Ukrainian military intelligence estimates. FRANCE 24 reports.  

Amid the intermittent sounds of outgoing artillery fire, a Ukrainian unit is using heavy machinery to build new trenches a few kilometres from the eastern town of Bakhmut. Russian forces have made gradual gains in the area with World War I-style, quasi-suicidal frontal attacks backed by well-equipped Wagner mercenaries. With Bakhmut dangerously close to being encircled, Ukrainian troops are adding more defensive lines to fall back on. 

“This line is being fortified for when Bakhmut falls,” Igor, a Ukrainian soldier, tells FRANCE 24 from the top of a hill. Ukraine’s objective: to ensure that the fall of Bakhmut doesn’t turn into a breakthrough for Russian forces. 

“We are willing to pay the price to win,” he says, referring to the large number of Ukrainian casualties. “But victory is now in the hands of our allies, who must provide us with better weapons.”

Igor sits in the trench that his unit is building a few kilometres from Bakhmut, February 10, 2023. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

FRANCE 24 heard this, mantra-like, from virtually every soldier as we visited several secret locations on the Donbas front line. The request for additional Western weapons is growing more urgent as Russia pushes forward. This time, Moscow is not sending poorly trained convicts to fight a battle of attrition like the one that has been raging in Bakhmut since August. In areas like Kreminna and Vuhledar, Ukraine is now facing assaults from professional mechanised infantry units.         

With Western armour not due to arrive before late spring or summer, Kyiv’s forces have to defend the front armed with Soviet-era equipment.

Basic camouflage: Ukrainian troops conceal their tanks with pine branches.
Basic camouflage: Ukrainian troops conceal their tanks with pine branches. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

Several ageing T-64, T-72 and T-80 Soviet tanks are scattered in a pine forest some 20 kilometres from Russian lines. The numbers after the “T” offer a rough idea of the year the first models were put into service – long before the soldiers we met were even born.

‘Not enough to push the Russians back’ 

Once the soldiers receive the coordinates of their targets, tanks advance in pairs to engage the enemy. After firing, they move away from the front line, returning to their initial positions or heading to another location.  

“Right now it’s very hard because the enemy is pushing [forward] and we don’t have enough armoured vehicles to push them back,” a soldier from Ukraine’s 25th Tank Brigade, going by the call name “Volunteer”, tells FRANCE 24.

“Our most urgent issue is the shortage of ammunition,” says a senior officer also named Igor. “In practice, it means that we have to take more risks because we must go closer to the enemy to make sure that we don’t waste any shells.”

Getting enough ammunition remains the top priority for this tank unit on the eastern front.
Getting enough ammunition remains the top priority for this tank unit on the eastern front. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The tank company commander insists that the delivery of Western tanks would make a big difference on the battlefield.

To prove his point, he invites us to step into his T-80. Seconds after squeezing into the cramped gunner station, we realise how reliant on technology the crew is for something as basic as visibility.

Not for the claustrophobic: once the tank hatch is closed, the crew has very low visibility of what is happening outside. They increasingly rely on communications with drone operators.
Not for the claustrophobic: once the tank hatch is closed, the crew has very low visibility of what is happening outside. They increasingly rely on communications with drone operators. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

The T-80 optics system is terribly outdated, with different viewers for daylight targeting and thermal imagery – moving from one set to the other would quickly cause neck strain. On modern Western tanks, the gunner has easy access to daylight optics and thermal imagery on the same screen. Thermal imaging is very useful, even in broad daylight, for identifying targets in dense areas like forests or cities.

“And the shells are stored right under where you are sitting,” grins Igor. A hit or fire triggering an explosion right below them – what people posting on social media call the “flying turret” – is the ultimate nightmare for crews operating Soviet-era tanks.

Western tanks have the capacity to engage the enemy from farther away and can cooperate more easily on the battlefield with other infantry and artillery units, explains Alexandre Vautravers, editor-in-chief of Revue Militaire Suisse. Vautravers is a Swiss colonel and former deputy commander of an armoured brigade who has hands-on experience with such weapons.

“Tanks in Ukraine are now being used as mobile artillery. There have been very, very few tanks destroyed by other tanks in this conflict. Western tanks and armoured vehicles can give an edge to Ukrainian forces by allowing them to move and shoot at the same time. But it would require two or three weeks of intensive training,” he tells FRANCE 24.

But Western tanks are unlikely to be the silver bullet that pushes Russian forces out of Igor’s front line. The company commander ranks anti-tank mines as one of the biggest threats in this area – something to which Western tanks are not immune.

This Ukrainian soldier tasked with clearing minefields stands next to an anti-tank mine.
This Ukrainian soldier tasked with clearing minefields stands next to an anti-tank mine. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

“Even with Western tanks, it would be hard to punch through Russian lines in Donbas because it’s a front that has been fortified for almost the last 10 years,” says Vautravers. Russian-backed separatists have controlled Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas since 2014. 

Besides concentrated artillery and anti-tank missiles, defensive lines in this area include deep ditches, concrete obstacles and minefields.

Flying five metres above the ground

Mikhail isn’t worried about minefields. The 39-year-old pilot from the 12th Army Aviation Brigade flies an MI-24 “Hind” attack helicopter. Five gunships from his unit, which includes MI-8 transport helicopters, are parked on an open field on the eastern front. Maintenance workers are busy lubricating rocket pods while others check the alignment of the helicopter blades. They need to be ready to take off in an instant if their commanders send them a target’s coordinates. 

A helicopter unit has several maintenance workers for each gunship.
A helicopter unit has several maintenance workers for each gunship. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

“Everybody has a role to fight against the Russians. When the infantry can’t move, they call the helicopters (…) Our sorties can last up to one hour and we destroy our targets 90% of the time – but it’s very dangerous,” Mikhail says.

The Donbas front is heavily fortified with air defences and MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems). The pilots explain that the higher they fly, the more likely they will be targeted by enemy surface-to-air missiles.

Mikhail sitting in his Hind. The lack of modern laser-guided ammunitions for this Soviet-era model means that he has to fly closer to enemy positions.
Mikhail sitting in his Hind. The lack of modern laser-guided ammunitions for this Soviet-era model means that he has to fly closer to enemy positions. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

“The Hind’s specification manual indicates that we should not not fly under 20 metres. But we can get detected by portable radars if we go up higher than 10 metres. So, I usually fly only 5 metres above the ground,” says Mikhail.

Like other Ukrainian soldiers, the pilots have high hopes that better-quality Western arms will help counterbalance Russia’s superiority in numbers. But they are also keenly aware that the promised armoured vehicles will not arrive in sufficient numbers on Ukraine’s battlefield for several months.

That will be too late to help fend off Russia’s winter offensive.

In the meantime, Ukrainian forces are turning to what they call “trophies” – Russian armoured vehicles that have been seized and repurposed after being abandoned by their crews. In a secret location outside Kharkiv, we visited a discreet military workshop where mechanics work around the clock to put them back into working order.

A mechanic at work on an armoured infrantry fighting vehicle seized from Russia.
A mechanic at work on an armoured infrantry fighting vehicle seized from Russia. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

A BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicle with broken tracks lies rusting in a corner. It is used as a reserve for spare parts; mechanics tell us it has already helped breathe new life into two similar models. Several Russian tanks are packed into a small courtyard, the letter “Z” still visible on their armour.

Several Soviet-era tanks captured by Ukrainian forces are waiting to be sent back to the battlefield against their former owner - Russia. Notice the
Several Soviet-era tanks captured by Ukrainian forces are waiting to be sent back to the battlefield against their former owner – Russia. Notice the “Z” letter still visible on the cannon. © Mehdi Chebil, FRANCE 24

With more than 500 of its tanks captured since the beginning of the invasion, Russia has ironically become the first foreign nation to provide Kyiv with tanks. But Ukraine’s hopes for reconquering its occupied territories remain pinned on a long-awaited future arsenal of Western-supplied weapons. 


Ukraine, one year on
Ukraine, one year on © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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Ukraine war: NATO chief asks allies for tanks and five other stories

1. Deliver the tanks to Ukraine, NATO chief tells allies in Berlin

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg urged allies on Tuesday to speed up deliveries of heavy and more advanced weapons to repel Russian forces in Ukraine and expressed confidence that a decision on sending battle tanks to Kyiv would come soon.

Stoltenberg was speaking in Berlin alongside Germany’s new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, who said his government would act quickly on the tanks if a consensus were to be found.

Pressure has been building on German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s government to send its Leopard tanks to Ukraine and allow other countries to do the same — under military procurement rules, Germany must authorise any re-exports.

But Scholz’s Social Democrat party has been holding back, wary of sudden moves that could cause Moscow to escalate further.

Poland, which has accused Germany of dragging its heels on the tanks, said on Tuesday it had formally requested permission from Berlin to re-export its Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

“At this pivotal moment in the war, we must provide heavier and more advanced systems to Ukraine, and we must do it faster,” NATO’s Stoltenberg told reporters.

“I therefore welcome our discussion today. We discussed the issue of battle tanks. Consultations among allies will continue and I’m confident we will have a solution soon,” Stoltenberg added.

Pistorius said Germany was not standing in the way of other countries training Ukrainian troops to use the Leopard tanks while talks continued. He said it was wrong to say that “there’s disunity or that Germany is isolated”.

Scholz was trying to forge consensus on the tanks issue, he said, adding that NATO must not become party to the war in Ukraine.

Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock had signalled a possible breakthrough on Sunday when she said her government would not stand in the way if Poland wanted to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

But on Tuesday, a German foreign ministry official appeared to temper those remarks by saying that Scholz would decide on sending the tanks.

2. Zelenskyy’s anti-corruption purge results in series of high-profile resignation

Several senior Ukrainian officials resigned on Tuesday in the biggest leadership shakeup of the war with Russia so far, in what an aide to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called an answer to public calls for “justice”.

Some, though not all, of the resignations were linked to corruption allegations. Ukraine has a history of graft and shaky governance and is under international pressure to show it can be a reliable steward of billions of euros in Western aid.

“There are already personnel decisions — some today, some tomorrow — regarding officials at various levels in ministries and other central government structures, as well as in the regions and in law enforcement,” Zelenskyy said in an overnight video address.

Zelenskyy aide Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted: “The president sees and hears society. And he directly responds to a key public demand – justice for all.”

Among those stepping down or fired on Tuesday morning were a deputy prosecutor general, a deputy defence minister and the deputy chief of staff in Zelenskyy’s own office.

The changes came two days after a deputy infrastructure minister was arrested and accused of siphoning off about €360,000 from contracts to buy generators, one of the first big corruption scandals to become public since the war began 11 months ago.

The Defence Ministry said Deputy Defence Minister Vyacheslav Shapovalov, responsible for supplying troops, had resigned on Tuesday morning as a “worthy deed” to retain trust after media accusations of corruption which he and the ministry rejected. 

It followed a newspaper report that the ministry overpaid for food for troops, which the ministry and its supplier both denied.

Though Zelenskyy did not name any officials in his address, he announced a ban on officials taking holidays abroad.

“Ignoring the war is a luxury no one can afford,” he said. “If they want to rest, they will rest outside the civil service.”

The changes are a rare shakeup of an otherwise notably stable wartime leadership in Kyiv. Apart from purging a spy agency in July, Zelenskyy had mostly stuck with his team.

Kyiv says a surge in patriotic feeling has dampened corruption since Russia’s invasion. But the head of Zelenskyy’s Sluga Narodu or Servant of the People party promised on Monday that officials would be arrested in a coming anti-corruption drive, which would resort to martial law if necessary.

3. Norway questioned fleeing Wagner mercenary over alleged war crimes, authorities say

Norwegian police have begun questioning a former commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group who recently fled to Norway about his time in Ukraine, police said on Tuesday.

Andrei Medvedev, who escaped from Russia by crossing the Russian-Norwegian border, has said he fears for his life after witnessing what he said was the killing and mistreatment of Russian prisoners brought to the front lines in Ukraine to fight for Wagner.

Kripos, Norway’s national criminal police service, which has responsibility for investigating war crimes, has begun questioning him about his experiences in Ukraine.

“Kripos can confirm that Andrei Medvedev has been questioned,” it said in an emailed statement to Reuters.

“We do not want to go into what he has explained in these interviews, but specify that he still has the status of a witness.”

Medvedev’s Norwegian lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, was not immediately available for comment.

Kripos is part of the international effort to investigate war crimes in Ukraine conducted by the International Criminal Court.

“He has previously said that he was part of the Wagner group, and it is interesting for Kripos to get more information about this period,” Kripos added, declining to give further details.

On Monday, Medvedev was detained by immigration police due to “disagreement” about measures taken to ensure his safety.

4. Russia to amend law on exiting the country

Planned amendments of Russia’s transportation law will make it mandatory for people to book a time and place for any intended crossing of the border by car, the TASS news agency reported, raising the possibility of new restrictions on travel.

“The passage of vehicles … in order to cross the state border of the Russian Federation is carried out on a reserved date and time in accordance with the procedure established by the government,” the agency said later on Monday, citing a draft amendment it said was due to come into force on 1 March.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year, many Russian citizens and residents fled from the country, with the number growing significantly after the government declared the mobilisation of some 300,000 personnel for the military in September.

While precise totals are not available, the number of Russians who have left could run into hundreds of thousands, according to media reports and figures released by neighbouring countries.

The amendments to the law covering border crossings were prepared by the Committee on Transport and Infrastructure Development of the State Duma, Russia’s lower house of parliament, TASS reported.

It was not clear when the required readings of the draft amendments would take place.

5. Russia’s Ukraine war commander announces military reforms, blames the West

Russia’s new military reforms respond to possible NATO expansion and the use of Kyiv by the “collective West” to wage a hybrid war against Russia, the newly appointed general in charge of Russia’s war in Ukraine said.

Valery Gerasimov, in his first public comments since his 11 January appointment to the role, also admitted to problems with the mobilisation of troops after public criticism forced President Vladimir Putin to reprimand the military.

The military reforms, announced mid-January, have been approved by Putin and can be adjusted to respond to threats to Russia’s security, Gerasimov told the news website Argumenty i Fakty in remarks published late Monday.

“Today, such threats include the aspirations of the North Atlantic Alliance to expand to Finland and Sweden, as well as the use of Ukraine as a tool for waging a hybrid war against our country,” Gerasimov, who is also the chief of Russia’s military general staff, said.

Finland and Sweden applied last year to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation after Russia invaded Ukraine.

Under Moscow’s new military plan, an army corps will be added to Karelia in Russia’s north, which borders Finland.

The reforms also call for two additional military districts, Moscow and Leningrad, which existed before they were merged in 2010 to be part of the Western Military District.

In Ukraine, Russia will add three motorised rifle divisions as part of combined arms formations in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, parts of which Moscow claims it annexed in September.

“The main goal of this work is to ensure guaranteed protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of our country,” Gerasimov said.

Gerasimov added that modern Russia has never seen such “intensity of military hostilities”, forcing it to carry out offensive operations to stabilise the situation.

“Our country and its armed forces are today acting against the entire collective West,” Gerasimov said.

In the 11 months since invading Ukraine, Russia has been shifting its rhetoric on the war from an operation to “denazify” and “demilitarise” its neighbour to increasingly casting it as “defence” from “an aggressive West”.

The Kremlin has offered no concrete proof for its claims.

Gerasimov and the leadership of the defence ministry have faced sharp criticism for multiple setbacks on the battlefield and Moscow’s failure to secure victory in a campaign the Kremlin had expected to take just a short time.

The country mobilised some 300,000 additional personnel in the fall proceeded chaotically.

“The system of mobilisation training in our country was not fully adapted to the new modern economic relations,” Gerasimov said. “So I had to fix everything on the go.”

6. Kyiv doles out further sanctions against Russian Orthodox Church affiliates

Ukraine has imposed sanctions on 22 Russians associated with the Russian Orthodox Church for what President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said was their support of genocide under the cloak of religion.

According to a decree issued by the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, the list includes Mikhail Gundayev, who represents the Russian Orthodox Church in the World Council of Churches and other international organizations in Geneva.

Russian state media reported that Gundayev is a nephew of the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill. Ukraine sanctioned Kirill last year.

The sanctions are the latest in a series of steps Ukraine has taken against the Russian Orthodox Church, which has backed President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine that is now entering its 12th month.

“Sanctions have been imposed against 22 Russian citizens who, under the guise of spirituality, support terror and genocidal policy,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address late on Monday.

He said the punitive measures said that they would strengthen the country’s “spiritual independence”.

A majority of Ukrainians are Orthodox Christians and competition has been fierce between the branch of the church historically linked to Moscow and an independent church proclaimed after independence from Soviet rule in 1991.

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Ukraine war: Soledar ‘fighting back’ and four other developments

1. Soledar still standing, Ukrainian military claims

Ukraine said on Thursday its troops were holding out despite heavy fighting on a battlefield littered with bodies around a salt mining town in eastern Ukraine, where Russian mercenaries have claimed Moscow’s first significant gain in half a year.

The ultra-nationalist contract militia Wagner, run by an ally of President Vladimir Putin outside the main chain of military command, claims to have taken Soledar after intense fighting that it said had left the town strewn with Ukrainian dead. But Moscow has held off officially proclaiming victory.

“At the moment, there are still some small pockets of resistance in Soledar,” Andrei Bayevsky, a Russian-installed local politician, said in an online broadcast.

Ukraine has acknowledged Russian advances, but Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said fighting was still fierce.

The Russians were “moving over their own corpses”, she said. 

Serhiy Cherevatyi, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Ukrainian TV there was constant shelling in Soledar. “The enemy is trying to take the initiative and attack. But they are failing to break through our defences.”

A 24-year-old Ukrainian soldier, positioned outside the small town, said: “The situation is difficult but stable. We’re holding back the enemy … we’re fighting back.”

With fighting on Ukraine’s eastern front as attritional as ever, Kremlin watchers were poring over Russia’s latest switch of battlefield leadership a day after Valery Gerasimov, chief of the military’s general staff, was unexpectedly given direct command of the invasion.

The previous commander of three months’ standing, Army General Sergei Surovikin, was effectively demoted to become one of Gerasimov’s three deputies.

Moscow explained the decision — at least the third abrupt change of top commander in the 11-month conflict — as a response to the campaign’s growing importance.

Russian and Western commentators alike saw attempts to shift blame for setbacks in which Russia has lost around 40% of the territory it had seized since February.

2. Russia mulls expanding upper draft age limit from 27 to 30, Moscow lawmaker says

Russia could raise the upper age limit for citizens to be conscripted into the armed forces as soon as this spring, a senior lawmaker has said, as part of Moscow’s plans to boost the number of Russian troops by 30%.

President Vladimir Putin gave his backing in December to defence ministry proposals to raise the age range for mandatory military service to cover Russian citizens aged 21-30, rather than the current range of 18-27.

The chairman of the Russian parliament’s defence committee, Andrei Kartapolov, said in an interview with the official parliamentary newspaper that Russia could raise the upper age limit for conscription to 30 for this year’s spring draft. 

But only after a one-to-three-year “transition period” would the lower limit be raised from 18 to 21 years, Kartapolov said.

Critics said the idea of a transition period was a transparent attempt by Russian authorities to increase the number of Russians eligible to be called up for military service to plug massive manpower shortages resulting from heavy losses in the war in Ukraine.

Russia’s armed forces are a mix of contracted soldiers and conscripts. Shoigu has outlined plans to increase the total number of combat personnel to 1.5 million from 1.15 million.

Asked about the possible changes, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that President Vladimir Putin “conceptually supported” raising the conscription age, but the exact details were up to the defence ministry to work out.

The role of conscripts in Ukraine came under intense focus soon after Russia’s invasion last February, with the defence ministry acknowledging some had been sent to fight there despite statements from Putin that this would not happen.

In September, Russia announced its first mobilisation since World War II, calling up more than 300,000 former soldiers — including ex-conscripts — in an emergency draft to support the war in Ukraine. 

Western governments say Russia has lost tens of thousands of soldiers in nearly 11 months of fighting.

3. Russia’s new deputy military commander visits troops in Belarus

A delegation headed by the commander of Russia’s ground forces, Oleg Salyukov, visited Belarus on Thursday to inspect the combat readiness of a joint force stationed there, the Belarusian defence ministry said.

The visit took place a day after Salyukov was named as one of the deputy commanders of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine in the latest of a series of reshuffles.

Moscow and its close ally Minsk have beefed up their joint military grouping in Belarus and plan to hold joint aviation drills there from next Monday.

The exercises form part of a pattern of activity that has prompted Ukraine to warn that Russian President Vladimir Putin may try to use Belarus to launch a new ground invasion of Ukraine from the north.

Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko allowed Putin to use his country as one of the launchpads to invade Ukraine last February, when Russian forces were beaten back in an attempt to take the capital Kyiv.

Military analysts say Russia has also used Belarusian facilities to train up newly mobilised soldiers who were called up last September to boost its forces in Ukraine.

However, Belarus has not sent its own troops into Ukraine in support of Russia’s war there.

4. Kyiv presses on with judiciary reform despite long road to EU membership

A congress of Ukrainian judges on Thursday appointed the last of eight new members to an important judicial oversight body, a move experts and officials have said is critical to Kyiv’s push to reform its judiciary.

The European Union made cleaning up the courts one of its main recommendations when it offered Ukraine the status of candidate member last June, four months after Russia’s invasion.

The selection of the new members to the High Council of Justice (HCJ) means the body can resume its work overseeing the appointment, dismissal and disciplining of judges.

“Looking forward to the reformed HCJ showcasing rule of law and integrity in practice,” the EU’s ambassador to Ukraine, Matti Maasikas, wrote on Twitter.

Ukraine’s parliament had already passed all the legislation sought by the EU before the start of accession talks with Kyiv, the speaker of the assembly said last month. 

But implementing those laws and achieving membership is widely expected to be a long road.

Some watchdogs have also warned that powerful interests are prepared to push back against reforms, especially in the judiciary.

In a statement on Thursday, the DEJURE Foundation, a non-governmental organisation which tracks judicial reform, expressed concern over the quality of the eight new selections.

“(Judges) demonstrated their unpreparedness for true agents of change in the judicial system,” it said. “We will evaluate the new team by their decisions, the new HCJ has a chance to dispel the doubts of society”.

Anti-corruption authorities in Kyiv have also doubled down in recent months on their battle against graft.

5. Russia accuses Sweden of having ‘something to hide’ in Nord Stream blasts inquest

Russia questioned on Thursday whether Sweden had “something to hide” over explosions that damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year, as it slammed Stockholm for not sharing information in the ongoing investigations into the blasts.

Swedish and Danish authorities are investigating four holes in the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines which link Russia and Germany via the Baltic Sea and have become a flashpoint in the Ukraine crisis.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Sweden’s refusal to engage with Russian prosecutors was “confusing” and said Moscow had a right to know the details of the probe into the explosions, which occurred last September.

Moscow proposed to Stockholm the establishment of a joint investigation into the blasts, which could see three of the four lines of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 gas projects put permanently out of use. But both Sweden and Denmark have rejected the idea of Russian participation.

At a briefing in Moscow on Thursday, Zakharova suggested there were reasons for that decision.

“Maybe Russian investigators, conducting an objective investigation, could come to an inconvenient conclusion… about who conducted this act of sabotage, terrorism. About who thought it up, and who carried it out,” she told reporters.

Zakharova said Sweden was “concealing” facts about what it had discovered in the investigation, suggesting that “the Swedish authorities have something to hide”.

Sweden and other European investigators say the attacks were carried out on purpose, but they have not said who they think was responsible. Moscow, without providing evidence, has blamed the explosions on Western sabotage.

Construction of Nord Stream 2, designed to carry Russian gas to Germany, was completed in September 2021, but was never put into operation after Berlin shelved certification just days before Moscow sent its troops into Ukraine in February.

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Ukraine war: Fierce fighting in Soledar and five other top stories

1. Kyiv sends reinforcements to Soledar after ‘Putin’s Chef’ says he wants its salt mines

Ukraine said it was strengthening its forces around Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region and repelling constant attacks there by the Russian mercenary group Wagner, whose leader has vowed to capture the area’s vast underground mines.

Kyiv had sent reinforcements to Soledar, a small town near Bakhmut where the situation was particularly difficult, Ukrainian officials said.

“The enemy again made a desperate attempt to storm the city of Soledar from different directions and threw the most professional units of the Wagnerites into battle,” Ukraine’s military said in a statement.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, has been trying to capture Bakhmut and Soledar for months at the cost of many lives on both sides. He said on Saturday its significance lay in the network of mines there.

“It not only (has the ability to hold) a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 metres, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about.”

Military analysts say the strategic military benefit for Moscow would be limited. A US official has said Prigozhin, a powerful ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is eyeing the salt and gypsum from the mines.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in nightly video remarks on Sunday that Bakhmut and Soledar were holding on despite widespread destruction after months of attacks.

“Our soldiers are repelling constant Russian attempts to advance,” he said. In Soledar “things are very difficult”.

Pro-Russian bloggers quoted Prigozhin as saying his forces were fighting for the administration building in Soledar.

The Ukrainian military said reinforcements had been sent to Soledar, and everything was being done to fend off the enemy.

“There are brutal and bloody battles there — 106 shellings in one day,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the military in the east, said on Ukrainian television.

Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential staff, said Moscow was suffering huge losses in trying to justify its mobilisation of reservists but was not succeeding. “Our soldiers’ feat is titanic,” he wrote on Telegram.

2. Russian missile hits eastern Ukrainian market, killing at least two, authorities say

A Russian missile slammed into a village market in east Ukraine on Monday, killing two women and wounding four others, including a 10-year-old girl, regional prosecutors said.

Footage posted by public broadcaster Suspilne on the Telegram messaging app showed rescue workers sifting through large piles of rubble, burning debris and a large crater in Shevchenkove, about 80 km southeast of the city of Kharkiv.

A photograph posted online by the Ukrainian president’s office showed rescuers trying to pull out a woman in a thick winter coat. Her head and arms poked out from under the rubble, but it was not clear whether she was alive.

“The Russian army committed another act of terror against the civilian population — a child was wounded, two women were killed,” the regional prosecutor’s office said. “An enemy missile hit the territory of the local market.”

It said in a written statement that it had opened an investigation into a potential war crime, citing preliminary information that the attack came from an S-300 air defence system in Russia’s Belgorod region bordering Ukraine.

Russia, which invaded Ukraine more than 10 months ago, did not immediately comment on the reports from Shevchenkove, which Ukraine retook in September after months of Russian occupation.

Criticising Russia over the attack, Andriy Yermak, head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, wrote on Telegram: “Common terrorists.”

Oleh Synehubov, the Kharkiv region’s governor, wrote on Telegram that a 60-year-old woman had been killed and the other victims were being treated in a hospital.

The prosecutors gave no details of the others victims except to say that all were female and one was aged 10.

Suspilne quoted a local official as saying at least three pavilions were destroyed in the attack and that a shopping centre was damaged, but that Monday was not a market day.

3. Western armoured vehicle deliveries will ‘deepen Ukrainian suffering’, Kremlin says

The Kremlin said on Monday that new deliveries of Western weapons, including French-made armoured vehicles, to Kyiv, would “deepen the suffering of the Ukrainian people” and would not change the course of the conflict.

France and Germany announced last week that they would send light combat vehicles to Ukraine, ramping up their military support for Kyiv. The US said it would also provide armoured fighting vehicles to Ukraine.

Additionally, the UK is considering supplying Ukraine with tanks for the first time, Sky News reported, citing a Western source. 

“This supply will not be able to change anything”, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday.

“These supplies can only add to the pain of the Ukrainian people and prolong their suffering. They are not capable of stopping us from achieving the goals of the special military operation,” Peskov said.

Ukraine, which has scored some battlefield successes since Russian forces invaded last February, has asked Western allies for heavier weapons and air defences as it seeks to tip the balance of the conflict, now in its 11th month, further in its favour.

The Kremlin also said on Monday that despite France’s decision to send more weapons to Kyiv, Moscow appreciated President Emmanuel Macron’s contribution towards maintaining dialogue between the West and Russia.

“(Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Macron maintain contact, there are pauses in the dialogue, but during previous stages that contact was quite useful and constructive, despite all the differences,” Peskov said.

Macron was criticised in Ukraine and in some Western capitals for holding hours-long phone calls with Putin in the early weeks of Russia’s invasion.

Just last month, Macron was rebuked by the Baltic states for saying the West should consider Russia’s need for “security guarantees” in any future talks to end the fighting.

4. Rome delays decision on sending more weapons to Kyiv

Italy will not take a decision on the supply of new arms to Ukraine until February due to political tensions, cost considerations and military shortages, the la Repubblica newspaper reported on Monday.

Two weeks ago, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Rome was considering supplying air defences after a phone call with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in which she reaffirmed her government’s “full support” for Ukraine.

Shortly afterwards, Defence Minister Guido Crosetto struck a cautious tone on whether Italy would be able to supply Ukraine with air defence systems.

Citing unspecified sources, la Repubblica reported that Meloni, who is a firm supporter of Kyiv, is facing resistance to the approval of a decree to send arms to Ukraine from her right-wing allies Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi.

Both politicians have longstanding ties with Moscow.

But sources from their respective political parties — Salvini’s Lega and Berlusconi’s Forza Italia — on Monday denied having any problems with the decree.

Another issue holding back the decision is concern about depriving the Italian army of air defence systems, la Repubblica wrote, as two of its five missile batteries are already committed to Kuwait and Slovakia.

Under former Prime Minister Mario Draghi, Italy sent five aid packages to Kyiv, including military supplies.

Meloni’s government, installed in October, has been working for weeks on a possible sixth delivery.

5. Prominent Russian actor to face charges for stating he would ‘fight for Ukraine’

Russian actor Artur Smolyaninov faces criminal charges in his home country after allegedly making “anti-Russian” comments in a newspaper interview, investigators said on Monday.

Smolyaninov, who starred in the 2005 film “The 9th Company” about the Soviet Union’s ill-fated military campaign in Afghanistan, said in an interview last week that he would fight for Ukraine, not Russia, if he had to take part in the conflict.

Smolyaninov said last October that he was no longer living in Russia.

His comments — made in an interview for Novaya Gazeta Europe, a newspaper now banned in Russia — drew condemnation from members of the Russian parliament, one of whom said the actor should be barred from all state-contracted films.

“For my part, I will appeal to the Investigative Committee with a request to initiate a criminal case against this traitor,” lawmaker Biysultan Khamzaev told the RIA news agency.

The Investigative Committee said on Monday it had launched a criminal case against Smolyaninov after he took part in an interview with a “Western publication” but did not provide further details.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, dozens of actors and artists have fled abroad in fear of breaching the country’s tough new laws on spreading “misinformation” about the war in Ukraine or discrediting the Russian army.

6. Ukraine wants to see Brussels sanction Russia’s Rosatom

Kyiv expects the European Union to include Russian state nuclear energy company Rosatom in its next round of sanctions over the war in Ukraine, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said on Monday.

Shmyhal said after talks in Kyiv with Frans Timmermans, a vice-president of the European Commission, that Russia’s nuclear energy industry should be punished over the invasion of Ukraine more than 10 months ago.

Russia has occupied the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in southeastern Ukraine since last March. 

President Vladimir Putin issued a decree last October transferring control of the plant from the Ukrainian nuclear energy company Energoatom to a subsidiary of Rosatom. Kyiv says the move amounts to theft.

“We are actively working with our European partners on providing support in four areas: demilitarisation of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, supply of electrical equipment, opportunities to import electricity from the EU, and sanctions against Russia,” Shmyhal wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

“We expect that the 10th package (of EU sanctions) will contain restrictions against Russia’s nuclear industry, in particular Rosatom. The aggressor must be punished for attacks on Ukraine’s energy industry and crimes against ecology.”

Although the EU has progressively tightened sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, it has not imposed sanctions directly on Rosatom.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the United Nations’ nuclear power watchdog, has repeatedly expressed concern over the shelling of the Zaporizhzhia plant, which each side blames on the other.

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