- Russia says Ukrainian forces retreated in Luhansk.
- Kyiv says Russian balloons shot down over capital.
- NATO says more artillery rounds produced for Kyiv.
KYIV: Russia launched missile strikes across Ukraine on Thursday, Ukrainian officials said, after Western allies pledged to ramp up military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces to support a planned counter-offensive.
Ukrainian officials said air defences in the south downed eight Kalibr missiles fired from a ship in the Black Sea, but other missiles struck northern and western Ukraine as well as the central regions of Dnipropetrovsk and Kirovograd.
One missile struck an industrial site in the western city of Lviv, causing a fire which was brought under control, authorities said.
Bolstered by tens of thousands of reservists drafted in December, Russia has intensified ground attacks across southern and eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, and a major new offensive is widely expected as the first anniversary of its February 24 invasion nears.
“The enemy’s offensive continues in the east, (with) round-the-clock attacks,” Ukrainian Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said on Wednesday.
“The situation is tense. But our fighters are not allowing the enemy to achieve their goals and are inflicting very serious losses,” she wrote on the Telegram messaging app.
The Russian Defence Ministry earlier on Wednesday said Ukrainian forces had retreated in the face of Russian operations in the Luhansk region, although it gave no details and Reuters was not able to verify this and other battlefield reports.
“During the offensive … the Ukrainian troops randomly retreated to a distance of up to 3 km (2 miles) from the previously occupied lines,” the ministry said on Telegram.
The ministry did not specify in which part of Luhansk the offensive took place. The Luhansk and Donetsk regions make up the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, now partially occupied by Russia which wants full control.
In Kyiv, the capital’s military administration said six Russian balloons that may have contained reconnaissance equipment were shot down after air raid sirens blared.
Russia did not immediately comment.
Russia’s main effort has been an artillery and ground onslaught on the city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk.
Ukrainian military analysts said Russian troops had launched several unsuccessful attacks on villages to the north and south of Bakhmut over the past day.
“Things are very difficult for our forces there as Russian troops are being sent into the area en masse,” analyst Oleh Zhdanov said.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, in its evening report, said Russian forces had fired on more than 15 towns and villages near Bakhmut, including the city itself.
Donetsk regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko posted pictures and video of an apartment building littered with rubble that he said was destroyed in the city of Pokrovsk, southwest of Bakhmut, killing three people.
Bakhmut’s capture would give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk further west in Donetsk, which would revive Moscow’s momentum ahead of the February 24 anniversary of the invasion.
NATO countries are ramping up production of artillery munitions as Ukraine is burning through shells faster than allies can make them, the alliance said.
“Things are happening, but … we need to step up even more, because there is a big need out there to provide Ukraine with ammunition,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told reporters after a two-day meeting of alliance defence ministers in Brussels.
Ukraine has received billions of dollars in military aid, with the United States committing more than $27.4 billion in security assistance since the conflict began.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell urged countries to join Germany in sending tanks.
Britain said it and other European nations would provide military equipment including spare parts for tanks and artillery ammunition via an international fund, with an initial package worth more than $241 million.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Ukraine had a very good chance of taking and “exploiting” the initiative on the battlefield this year.
Senior US officials have previously advised Ukraine to hold off with a major offensive until the latest supply of US weaponry was in place and training had been provided.
In an evening address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said: “We have to ensure that this spring it is truly felt that Ukraine is moving towards victory.”
Russia calls the invasion a “special military operation” against security threats and has cast deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine as proof that the West is escalating the war.
Kyiv and its allies call Russia’s actions a land grab.
Next week, on the eve of the February 24 anniversary of the start of the war, the UN General Assembly will vote on a draft resolution stressing the need to reach a lasting peace and demanding Moscow withdraw its troops.