Ukraine fighting intensifies as Russia seeks to recapture lost cities

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  • Russia bombards Kherson in effort to recapture city
  • Fierce fighting over bombed-out ghost city Bakhmut
  • Russia deploys tanks, armoured vehicles, Ukraine analyst
  • Russia to ban oil sales to countries which impose cap

By Dan Peleschuk and Herbert Villarraga

KYIV/BAKHMUT, Ukraine, Dec 28 (Reuters) – Russian forces fired 33 rockets at civilian targets in the Ukrainian city of Kherson in the 24 hours to early Wednesday, Ukraine’s military said, as fighting intensified with Russia deploying more tanks and armoured vehicles on front lines.

The General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in its morning report that Russia forces were attacking populated areas on the right bank of the Dnipro River near Kherson with mortars and artillery.

Russia denies targeting civilians. Reuters was unable to immediately verify the reports.

Russian forces abandoned Kherson last month in one of Ukraine’s most significant gains in the 11-month war, but fighting has entered a slow, grinding phase as bitter winter weather has set in.

“There has been very little change in terms of the front line but pressure from the enemy has intensified, both in terms of the numbers of men and the type and quantity of equipment,” said Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov.

Zhdanov said that fighting had intensified with Russia deploying armoured vehicles and tanks.

The heaviest fighting has been around the eastern city of Bakhmut, a bombed-out ghost town, which Russia has been trying for months to storm at huge cost in lives, and further north in the cities of Svatove and Kreminna, where Ukraine is trying to break Russian defensive lines.

In Bakhmut, home to 70,000 people before the war and now in ruins, Reuters reporters saw fires burning in a large residential building. Debris littered the streets and the windows of most buildings were blown out.

“Our building is destroyed. There was a shop in our building, now it’s not there anymore,” said Oleksandr, 85, adding he was the only remaining resident there.

Nearby, 73-year-old Pilaheia said she had long got used to the “constant explosions”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, calling it a “special military operation” to “denazify” his neighbour, which he said was a threat to Russia.

Russia set out to subdue Ukraine within days, but its forces were defeated on the outskirts of the capital, Kyiv, in the spring and forced to withdraw from other areas in the autumn.

Putin responded by summoning hundreds of thousands of reservists for the first time since World War Two.

RUSSIAN RETALIATES OVER PRICE CAP

Putin retaliated on Tuesday against a price cap on its oil imposed by Western countries, saying Russia would ban oil sales to countries that abide by the cap imposed on Dec. 5.

The cap, unseen even in the times of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, is aimed at crippling Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine – without upsetting markets by actually blocking its supply of oil.

Under the cap, oil traders who want to retain access to Western financing for such crucial aspects of global shipping as insurance must promise not to pay more than $60 per barrel for Russian seaborne oil.

That is close to the current price for Russian oil, but far below the prices at which Russia was able to sell it for much of the past year, when windfall energy profits helped it offset the impact of financial sanctions.

The oil ban decree from Putin was presented as a direct response to “actions that are unfriendly and contradictory to international law by the United States and foreign states and international organisations joining them”.

The ban would halt crude oil sales to countries participating in the price cap from Feb. 1-July 1, 2023. A separate ban on refined oil products such as gasoline and diesel would take effect on a date to be set by the government. Putin would have authority to overrule the measures in special cases.

Russia is the world’s second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, and any actual disruption to its sales would have far-reaching consequences for global energy supplies.

PROMOTING PEACE PLAN

Putin has repeatedly spoken of a desire for peace talks in comments in recent days.

But his foreign minister Sergei Lavrov made clear Russia has preconditions, including that Ukraine recognise the conquest by force of around a fifth of Ukrainian territory, which Russia says it has annexed.

Ukraine says it would never agree to relinquish land.

Zelenskiy has been promoting a 10-point peace plan, discussing it with U.S. President Joe Biden among others, and urging world leaders to hold a Global Peace Summit.

In a late night address on Tuesday, Zelenskiy said a meeting of the military command had “established the steps to be taken in the near future”.

“We will continue preparing the armed forces and Ukraine’s security for next year. This will be a decisive year. We understand the risks of winter. We understand what needs to be done in the spring,” he said.

Photo: Ukrainian MOD

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