Russian troops who recently visited Belarus for training are not battle-ready, British intelligence has said, while Moscow is reported to be largely failing in its efforts to capture territory to make up for recent losses to Ukrainian troops.
Despite launching frequent assaults on their opponents, the Russians have, for weeks, failed to take control of the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk enclave, reducing much of it to ruins in the process.
After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle for Bakhmut became a focal point in the war — a clear sign of President Vladimir Putin’s desire for visible gains after humiliating setbacks.
Taking Bakhmut would break Ukraine’s supply lines and open up a route for Russian forces to advance towards other towns considered Ukrainian strongholds.
But the UK’s Ministry of Defence has suggested the scenario is unlikely to play out anytime soon.
“Over the last 48 hours, fighting has remained focused around the Bakhmut sector of Donetsk oblast, and near Svatove in Luhansk,” it said on Twitter.
“Russia continues to initiate frequent small-scale assaults in these areas, although little territory has changed hands.
“To the north, elements of Russia’s 1st Guards Tank Army were probably amongst the Russian forces recently deployed to Belarus. This formation was likely conducting training before its deployment and is unlikely to have the support units needed to make it combat-ready.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian troops were slowly “erasing” Russia’s advances amid intense fighting in the east.
“The situation there is difficult, painful,” he said in his nightly address, referring to areas where his troops have been defending Bakhmut and are waging a months-long campaign to retake the town of Kreminna.
Most Russian forces, military equipment and weaponry are concentrated around Bakhmut, but efforts to encircle the town have been unsuccessful, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said.
Russia carried out two missile strikes and shelled 44 times from several rocket launchers over the past day, while Kyiv's troops repelled attacks near eight settlements in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk enclaves, Ukraine’s General Staff said on Facebook.
There was renewed hope of peace talks this week when Mr Putin claimed Moscow was ready for discussion.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in an interview with the Associated Press that his country wanted to hold a “peace” summit in February but expressed doubts over whether Russia would participate.
He said Ukraine would hold direct talks with Russia only after the country faces a war-crimes tribunal.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with state news service Tass that Ukraine must comply with Moscow’s demands to surrender in full and concede sovereignty of annexed lands or face continued war.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, described as Europe’s last dictator and a close ally of Mr Putin, is in Moscow for talks this week.
He met the Russian leader on Tuesday on the sidelines of an informal summit of Commonwealth of Independent States at the State Russian Museum in Saint Petersburg.
It was their second meeting in 24 hours to “finalise many issues”, Belarusian state-owned Belta news agency reported.
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The agency quoted Mr Putin as saying: “Although we keep in touch all the time, some issues emerge every now and then, so we need to deal with them and take the necessary decisions to address them in a more efficient way.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s Armed Forces claimed the Russian Army had suffered the loss of a further 620 servicemen killed between December 24 and 27. This would bring the total Russian losses to 103,220.
“[The] Russian enemy suffered the greatest losses [of the past day] at the Bakhmut and Lyman directions,” the Ukrainian Armed Forces said on social media.
Three soldiers were reported dead on Monday in a drone explosion at a Russian airbase.
They were hit by falling debris after a Ukrainian drone was shot down, pro-Kremlin media said, citing the Russian Defence Ministry.