Moscow has said its forces are strengthening their positions in eastern Ukraine, and dismissed as a “lie” a claim by former British prime minister Boris Johnson that Russian president Vladimir Putin threatened him with a missile strike.
Ukrainian officials said on Monday that at least five civilians were killed and 13 injured in Russian shelling over the previous 24 hours, and urged western states to accelerate deliveries of weapons and ammunition to Kyiv.
“Our units continue their advance toward Ugledar. We can say now that the units have gained a foothold in Ugledar’s east, and work is under way in its outskirts, too,” Denis Pushilin, a Russian-appointed official in partly occupied Donetsk region, said of a transport hub that is called Vuhledar in Ukrainian.
Ukraine said its forces still controlled Vuhledar and the badly damaged city of Bakhmut, 130km to the northeast, amid intense fighting in both areas.
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“They are constantly launching assault operations, trying to capture our positions … and take Vuhledar, because it is very important to them. Vuhledar is on raised ground and if they take it, it will be very difficult for us there. The entire front would have to be reorganised,” said Yevhen Nazarenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian army’s 68th brigade.
Mr Nazarenko said Vuhledar had been relatively quiet until a week ago, but now Russian forces “just charge forward. Marines from the Pacific fleet and their paratroopers are constantly trying to advance. We destroy them … and they suffer very heavy losses, but they do not stop their assault operations and constantly hurl in new forces in a bid to take our positions.”
Some Ukrainian officials believe Mr Putin has ordered his commanders to seize all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine before the first anniversary of Russia’s all-out invasion of its neighbour on February 24th, when the Kremlin launched what it calls a “special military operation” that has now killed tens of thousands of people and displaced millions.
“He threatened me at one point, and he said, ‘Boris, I don’t want to hurt you but, with a missile, it would only take a minute’ or something like that. Jolly,” former British prime minister Boris Johnson recalled of a phone conversation with Mr Putin shortly before the invasion.
“But I think from the very relaxed tone that he was taking, the sort of air of detachment that he seemed to have, he was just playing along with my attempts to get him to negotiate,” he told the BBC.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded: “No, what Mr Johnson said is not true – or more precisely, it is a lie.”
“This is either a conscious lie, and then the question is probably over why he chose to present things in this way; or it was unwitting and, in fact, he did not understand what President Putin was talking to him about,” he added.
Mr Peskov also criticised western states for pledging more arms to Ukraine, after the US, Germany, Britain, Poland and other states agreed to supply Kyiv with heavy battle tanks.
“It’s a dead-end situation: it leads to significant escalation, it leads to Nato countries becoming more and more directly involved in the conflict – but it doesn’t have the potential to change the course of events and will not do so,” he said.
On Sunday night, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy said “the speed of supply has been and will be one of the key factors in this war.”
“Russia hopes to drag out the war, to exhaust our forces. So we have to make time our weapon. We must speed things up, speed up the supply and the opening up of new, necessary weapons options for Ukraine,” he added.