Ukrainian troops holding Bakhmut line demand weapons as world powers meet
By Yiming Woo and Andrew Gray
NEAR BAKHMUT, Ukraine/MUNICH (Reuters) - Ukrainian soldiers fighting to hold off a Russian push on the small eastern city of Bakhmut pleaded for more weapons from the outside world as senior Western leaders met in Munich on Friday to assess the year-long war shaking Europe.
"Give us more military equipment, more weapons, and we will deal with the Russian occupier, we will destroy them," said Dmytro, a serviceman standing in the snow near Bakhmut, echoing a plea by his president to the Munich conference.
Nearly one year into the invasion, President Vladimir Putin's troops are intensifying assaults in the east.
Ukraine is planning a spring counter-offensive, for which it wants more, heavier and longer-range weapons from its Western allies.
Europe's worst conflict since World War Two war has killed tens of thousands, uprooted millions from their homes, pummelled the global economy and made Putin a pariah in the West.
He says he is fighting for Russia's security against an aggressively expanding NATO alliance, but Kyiv and its allies cast the invasion as a colonial-style land grab in Ukraine, formerly part of the Russian-dominated Soviet Union.
On the freezing battlefield, Ukrainian servicemen showed a visiting journalist the benefits of Australian-provided Bushmaster armoured vehicles in an area where Russian soldiers have become bogged down in months of fighting to take Bakhmut, which Russia's Wagner mercenary group is attacking.
The vehicles shield soldiers from bullets, enable evacuations of wounded and give cover for reconnaissance, Dmytro added. "There were cases when anti-tank mines were detonated, and the soldiers only received contusions. There were no serious injuries to the soldiers. It has worked very well."
The governor of Luhansk, one of two provinces in what is known as the Donbas which Russia partially controls and wants to take completely, said ground and air attacks were increasing.
"Today it is rather difficult on all directions," Serhiy Haidai told local TV. "There are constant attempts to break through our defence lines," he said of fighting near the city of Kreminna.
In its latest update, Russia said a barrage of missile strikes on Thursday around Ukraine had achieved their goals in hitting facilities providing fuel and ammunition to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's army.
Kyiv reported 36 missiles, of which 16 were shot down, and said its largest oil refinery, Kremenchuk, was struck.
Attending the three-day Munich Security Conference were a host of senior Western officials including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron and U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris.
At last year's gathering, they had urged Putin not to invade and warned of dire consequences if he did. This year, they are grappling with the implications of that.
Zelenskiy, speaking by video link, called for allies at the meeting to speed up sending weapons and won immediate support from Scholz and Macron.
In another sign of international backing, the International Monetary Fund said on Friday it had reached a staff-level agreement with Ukraine, paving the way for talks on a full loan programme.
As well as the pressing problem of the war, the Cold War-style standoff with Russia has revived huge wider security issues for Europe: how much to rely on the United States, how much to spend on defence, how to build its own capacity.
Kyiv said only a full Russian exit was acceptable.
"Negotiations can begin when Russia withdraws its troops from the territory of Ukraine. Other options only give Russia time to regroup forces and resume hostilities at any moment," Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.
The Pentagon said on Friday that the first Ukrainian battalion with about 635 soldiers had completed a roughly five-week-long U.S. course of combined arms training on the M2 Bradley Fighting Vehicle in Germany. Additional battalion-level combined arms training was already underway, it said.
The United States has announced plans to give Ukraine more than 50 of the armoured vehicles, which have a powerful gun and have been used by the U.S. Army to carry troops around battlefields since the mid-1980s.
Moscow accuses the United States of inciting Ukraine to escalate the war and now being directly involved.
"The American warmongers ... supply weapons in huge quantities, provide intelligence and participate directly in the planning of combat operations," said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry.
Russia's current focus is on Bakhmut, a now largely shattered city in Donetsk province - adjacent to Luhansk - whose pre-war population of about 70,000 people have mainly fled.
The Ukrainian 80th Air Assault Brigade's press officer, Taras Dzioba, said the Russians had paid a heavy price after waves of assaults around the city.
"There are places where their bodies are just piled up. There is a trench ... They just don't evacuate their wounded or killed," Dzioba said near a howitzer battery outside a defensive bunker.
Capturing Bakhmut would give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities further west, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. But Ukraine and allies say it would be a pyrrhic victory given the time taken and losses sustained.
The White House said Russian mercenary company Wagner Group has suffered more than 30,000 casualties so far during Russia's invasion, with about 9,000 of those fighters killed in action.
(Reporting by Yiming Woo, Olena Harmash, Alexander Vasovic, Guy Faulconbridge, Andrew Gray and Andreas Rinke; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Mark Heinrich, Daniel Wallis and Diane Craft)