- Heavy fighting reported around Bakhmut
- Zelenskiy visits Poland, Macron to press China
- Washington pledges billions more as Ukraine readies offensive
By Pavel Polityuk
KYIV, April 5 (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited Poland on Wednesday, buoyed by the latest announcement of U.S. military aid, as Russian troops pressed on with their long and costly battle to seize the eastern city of Bakhmut.
Zelenskiy planned to thank his Polish allies, who have provided vital weaponry to his government since Russia’s invasion and have taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees.
French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, was visiting China after he and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed they would try to engage Beijing to hasten the end of the Russian assault on Ukraine, now in its second year.
Beijing has called for a comprehensive ceasefire and described its position on the conflict as “impartial”.
The United States on Tuesday pledged $2.6 billion more in military assistance for Zelenskiy’s government, including three air surveillance radars, anti-tank rockets and fuel trucks, taking pledged U.S. military aid to more than $35 billion.
Moscow’s embassy in Washington accused the United States of wanting to drag out the conflict as long as possible, Russian news agency TASS said.
The West has stepped up aid as Ukrainian forces prepare to mount a counteroffensive in the east against Russian forces, although when exactly it might kick off has not been disclosed.
Spain said six Leopard 2A4 tanks it has promised to send to Ukraine would leave the country in the second half of April, later than initially planned. Spain has also trained 40 tank crew members and 15 mechanics at a military base in the northeastern city of Zaragoza.
Other NATO countries, including Germany, Poland and Portugal, have promised to send a total of 48 Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
The battlefield focus remained on Bakhmut, a mining city and transport hub on the edge of a chunk of Donetsk province largely under Russian control. Both sides have suffered huge casualties and much of the city has been reduced to ruins after months of street fighting and bombardments.
Near the town of Niu-York, 50 km (30 miles) south of Bakhmut, Ukrainian soldiers in muddy dugouts described repelling Russian attacks on a daily basis.
“They creep in, fire and try to exhaust us. Then they evaluate the situation and can move forward for a little more,” commander of infantry unit, who gave his nom-de-guerre as “Bodia” told Reuters.
“Meanwhile, we try to let them get closer to us so that we can hit them more precisely.”
Ukrainian military commanders have stressed the importance of holding Bakhmut and other towns and inflicting losses prior to the anticipated counteroffensive.
The Ukrainian general staff said in a report: “There was no letup in enemy actions aimed at storming the city of Bakhmut. At least 20 enemy attacks were repelled here alone over the past 24 hours.”
Mercenaries from the Wagner group – who have spearheaded the assault on Bakhmut – said at the weekend they had captured the city centre, a claim dismissed by Kyiv.
The U.S.-based Institute for the Study of War said the Wagner fighters had made advances in Bakhmut and were likely to continue trying to consolidate control of the city centre and push westward through dense urban areas.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
In Warsaw, Zelenskiy was due to meet President Andrzej Duda and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and speak to Ukrainian refugees.
The Ukrainian leader crossed the border into Poland – which has played an important role in persuading other Western powers to supply battle tanks and other weaponry to Ukraine – on Wednesday morning.
“It will not be a surprise to anyone that the Ukrainian side will ask Poland and other foreign partners for more support… but we must be aware that we as Poland have already really done a lot,” Polish presidential aide Marcin Przydacz said.
Przydacz said earlier that a first shipment of MiG fighter jets had already been delivered to Ukraine.
“MiGs from Poland will significantly strengthen our defence, allow us to make our skies safer, save the lives of our citizens and also reduce the destruction caused by Russian attacks,” Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote on Telegram.
On a more discordant note, Polish Agriculture Minister Henryk Kowalczyk resigned on Wednesday amid rising anger among farmers over the impact of Ukrainian grain imports on domestic prices. Kowalczyk said he decided to quit after the European Commission’s decided to extend duty free imports for Ukrainian grain until June 2024.
The Kremlin said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko would hold two days of talks with Putin in Moscow starting Wednesday.
Belarus is among Putin’s strongest allies and was used as a launch pad for the Russian invasion in February last year. Putin said last month that Russia will station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.
French President Macron, speaking on arrival in Beijing, said China could play a role in resolving the Ukraine war because of Beijing’s tight relationship with Russia.
He and European Union executive head Ursula von der Leyen are seeking to “reset” ties with an important economic partner while broaching thorny issues like Ukraine and trade risks.