Ukraine pounded by missiles, Russia eyes capturing Bakhmut by April

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Russia rained missiles across Ukraine on Thursday and struck its largest oil refinery, Kyiv said, while the head of the Wagner mercenary group predicted the long-besieged city of Bakhmut would fall within a couple of months.

Following a pattern of heavy bombardments after Ukrainian battlefield or diplomatic gains, Russia launched 36 missiles in the early hours, Ukraine's Air Force said.

NATO alliance officials had met the previous day to plan more military support for Kyiv.

The missiles triggered air-raid sirens and landed across Ukraine, including at the Kremenchuk refinery, where the extent of damage was unclear. About 16 were shot down, the Air Force added, a lower rate than normal.

"Another massive missile attack by the terrorist state on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine," the Defence Ministry tweeted. Ukraine said the barrage included three KH-31 missiles and one Oniks anti-ship cruise missile, which its air defences cannot shoot down.

There was no word from Moscow on the missile strikes, and Reuters could not independently verify battlefield reports.

Police in Moldova, where parliament on Thursday approved a new pro-Western government, said they again found missile debris near the border with Ukraine.

Meanwhile Belarus, which allowed Russia to use its territory to send troops into Ukraine at the start of the war, said it would only fight alongside its ally if it was attacked.

Bolstered by tens of thousands of reservists, Russia has intensified ground attacks across southern and eastern Ukraine, and a major new offensive appears to be shaping as the first anniversary of its 24 February invasion nears.

The conflict has killed tens of thousands of people, pulverised Ukrainian cities, destabilised the global economy and uprooted millions from their homes.

Showing the scale of disruption, Germany said 1.1 million people arrived from Ukraine in 2022, exceeding its unprecedented migrant influx of 2015-16.

‘Their bodies are just piled up’ 

Russia's current focus is on the small city of Bakhmut in Donetsk, one of two regions making up the Donbas, Ukraine's industrial heartland now partially occupied by Russia.

In battles led by the Wagner group swelled by prison recruits, Russia has for months been pounding and encircling Bakhmut. Most of its pre-war population of about 70,000 people has left, leaving Ukrainian soldiers dug in.

"They (the Russians) are sending a lot of troops. I don’t think that is sustainable for them to keep attacking this way," said the Ukrainian 80th Air Assault Brigade's press officer, Taras Dzioba.

"There are places where their bodies are just piled up. There is a trench where... they just don't evacuate their wounded or killed."

Dzioba spoke to Reuters as he stood near a Howizter battery outside a defensive bunker close to the Bakhmut front lines.

Its capture would give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger Donetsk cities further west, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. But Ukraine and allies say seizing Bakhmut would be a pyrrhic victory given the months it has taken and the huge losses they say Russia has sustained.

In an interview with a pro-war military blogger, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin forecast Bakhmut would fall by April, depending on how many men Ukraine threw into the fight and how well his men were supplied.

"Because there are a huge number of problems that need to be solved. Naturally it will also depend on whether we continue to be bled," he added, referring to the end of prisoner recruits.

As Ukraine burns through munitions fast and clamours for heavier firepower, including tanks and fighter jets, NATO members are ramping up production and promised more during meetings in Brussels this week.

Israeli Rapprochement?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's army has received vast amounts of aid. The United States alone has committed $27.4 billion since the conflict began.

Senior US officials have advised Ukraine to hold off with an intended counter-offensive until the latest supply of US weaponry is in place and training has been provided.

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.

In Brussels, diplomats said European Union countries were "on good track" to adopt a 10th package of economic sanctions against Moscow in time for the invasion's anniversary.

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and Canadian counterpart Melanie Joly were the latest in a stream of foreign dignitaries to travel to Ukraine.

Cohen was to meet Zelenskiy in the first such visit during the war from Israel, which coordinates with Russia over strikes on suspected Iranian targets in Syria and has stopped short of pledging direct weapons supplies to Kyiv.

Joly met first lady Olena Zelenska and announced C$21.2 million ($15.8 million) in aid to address conflict-related sexual violence and demining of Ukraine, among other work.

Zelenskiy was meanwhile due to open the Berlin Film Festival via video.