After five-months of fighting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy this week described the pressure his armed forces were under in the eastern Donbas region as “hell”.
Moscow is seeking to control the largely Russian-speaking Donbas, comprised of Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, where pro-Moscow separatists gained control of territory after the Kremlin annexed Crimea to the south in 2014.
Zelenskiy spoke of fierce fighting around the town of Avdiivka and the fortified village of Pisky, where Ukraine has acknowledged its Russian foe’s “partial success” in recent days.
The Ukrainian military said on Thursday Russian forces had mounted at least two assaults on Pisky but had been repelled.
Ukraine has spent the last eight years fortifying defensive positions in Pisky, seeing it as a buffer zone against Russian-backed forces who control the city of Donetsk about 10 km to the southeast.
Ukrainian General Oleksiy Hromov told a news conference his forces had recaptured two villages around the eastern city of Sloviansk but had been pushed back to the town of Avdiivka after being forced to abandon a coal mine regarded as an important defensive position.
The Russian defence ministry confirmed its offensive.
Reuters could not immediately verify either side’s assertions.
The Ukraine war has displaced millions, killed thousands of civilians, and left cities, towns and villages in rubble. Ukraine and its Western allies have accused Russian forces of targeting civilians and war crimes, charges Russia rejects.
On Friday, Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian shelling of scores of towns across the country again targeted civilian settlements as well as military infrastructure.
Human rights group Amnesty International on Thursday said Ukraine was endangering civilians by basing troops in residential areas.
Zelenskiy hit back saying the group was trying to “shift responsibility from the aggressor to the victim”.
The White House said it expected Russian officials to try and frame Ukrainian forces for an attack on the front-line town of Olenivka last week that killed prisoners held by Moscow-backed separatists.
Russia’s deputy UN ambassador responded in a Twitter post, saying the United States-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems were used in the attack.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday he would launch a fact-finding mission after both sides requested an investigation.
Putin says he launched his “special military operation” in Ukraine to ensure Russian security and protect Russian-speakers in Ukraine.
Ukraine and the West describe Russia’s actions as an unprovoked imperial-style war of aggression.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday the war was the most dangerous moment for Europe since World War II and Russia must not be allowed to win.
Amid fears among some politicians in the West that Russia’s ambitions may extend beyond Ukraine, Stoltenberg warned Putin that the response to such a move would be overwhelming.
“If President Putin even thinks of doing something similar to a NATO country as he has done to Georgia, Moldova or Ukraine, then all of NATO will be involved immediately,” Stoltenberg said.
The war has led previously non-aligned Finland and Sweden to seek NATO membership, with the request so far ratified by 23 of the 30 member states, including the US.