Ukraine shuts 'post-apocalyptic' battlefield town to civilians
By Dan Peleschuk
KYIV (Reuters) - Ukraine shut the eastern town of Avdiivka to non-military personnel on Monday, describing it as a post-apocalyptic wasteland, as Kyiv tried to break the back of Russia's flagging winter offensive before a counter-assault of its own.
A Ukrainian general said Kyiv was planning its next move after Moscow appeared to shift focus from the small city of Bakhmut, which Russia has failed to capture after several months of the war's bloodiest fighting, to Avdiivka further south.
The Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said in a Monday evening update that Russian forces were still trying to storm Bakhmut and had shelled the city and surrounding towns.
Front lines in Ukraine have barely budged for more than four months despite a Russian winter offensive. The Ukrainian military aims to wear down Russian forces before mounting a counteroffensive.
Ukrainian ground forces commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said last week the counterattack could come "very soon", visited frontline troops in the east and said his forces were still repelling Russian attacks on Bakhmut.
Defending the small city in the industrialised Donbas region was a "military necessity", Syrskyi said, praising Ukrainian resilience in "extremely difficult conditions".
Last week, the Ukrainian military warned that Avdiivka, a smaller town 90 km (55 miles) further south, could become a "second Bakhmut" as Russia turns its attention there.
Both towns have been reduced to rubble in fighting that both sides have called a "meat grinder". Russian forces say they are fighting street by street.
"I am sad to say this, but Avdiivka is becoming more and more like a place from post-apocalyptic movies," said Vitaliy Barabash, head of the city's military administration. Only around 2,000 of a pre-war population of 30,000 remain and he urged them to leave.
Ukrainian military video showed smoke billowing from ruined apartment blocks and dead soldiers on open ground and in trenches in Bakhmut.
Kyiv also said Russian forces again shelled Vuhledar, further south in the Donetsk region, where they have tried to advance for weeks with what the Ukrainian military says are heavy losses.
Two people were killed and 32 wounded on Monday after Russian forces fired two S-300 missiles at the eastern city of Sloviansk northwest of Bakhmut, according to regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko. Moscow denies targeting civilians.
In Russia, residents of Kireyevsk, 220 km (140 miles) south of Moscow, reacted angrily to damage from what the defence ministry said was a Ukrainian drone it downed there on Sunday.
The ministry said three people were injured and apartment blocks were hit. It was among the closest such incidents to the Russian capital so far.
"We were used to seeing these things only online but now we've felt it ourselves. Now we know how it is," 62-year-old Kireyevsk resident Yuri Ovchinnikov told Reuters as Russian soldiers combed the area around the damaged buildings.
There was no official comment from Kyiv. Ukrainian officials generally do not respond to reports of attacks within Russia, though they have sometimes celebrated them without accepting culpability.
ZELENSKIY MEETS IAEA CHIEF
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region on Monday, his third trip to the front line in less than a week.
He awarded soldiers medals and discussed nuclear safety with International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi, who also travelled to the area, home to Europe's biggest nuclear power plant, which has been under Russian control for the past year.
Zelenskiy met Grossi at the Dnipro hydroelectric power station. He told him the staff at Zaporizhzhia were under pressure from Russian occupying forces who failed to observe certain safety rules and interfered in its technological functions.
"Without an immediate withdrawal of Russian troops and staff from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station and adjacent areas, any initiative on restoring nuclear safety and security are doomed to failure," the president's website quoted him as telling Grossi.
NUCLEAR DEPLOYMENT PLAN
Since Putin's invasion to "demilitarise" Ukraine got bogged down in the autumn, he and other Russian officials have played up the prospect the war could escalate to involve nuclear weapons. On Saturday he said he had struck a deal to station tactical nuclear weapons in neighbouring Belarus.
Kyiv and its Western allies reacted angrily to the plan, which, while not unexpected, is one of Russia's most pronounced nuclear warnings to NATO over its military support for Ukraine.
Ukraine has called for a meeting of the U.N. Security Council and Lithuania said it would call for new sanctions against Moscow and Minsk. EU policy chief Josep Borrell urged Belarus not to host the weapons and threatened more sanctions.
Belarus and Russia have close military ties, and Minsk allowed Moscow to use its territory as a staging point for the invasion of Ukraine last year.
NATO called Putin's words "dangerous and irresponsible" but Washington played down concerns of nuclear escalation.
"We've seen nothing that would indicate Mr Putin is preparing to use tactical nuclear weapons in any way whatsoever in Ukraine," White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told broadcaster CBC on Sunday.
Tactical nuclear weapons are those used to make specific gains on a battlefield, rather than those capable of wiping out cities. It is unclear how many such weapons Russia has, since the topic is still shrouded in Cold War secrecy.
(Reporting by Dan Peleschuk and Reuters bureaus; Writing by Himani Sarkar and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff, Angus MacSwan and Tomasz Janowski)