Ukraine defends from frontline, Putin talks nuclear weapons on war anniversary

  • Putin raises the possibility of increasing nuclear power
  • Russia to deploy Sarmat ICBMs in 2023
  • ‘Back off the brink’, says UN
  • Ahead, Ukrainian troops claim to be holding Bagmut

NEAR KYIV/PAKMUD, Feb 23 (Reuters) – Ukraine said its forces had repulsed Russian offensives along the length of its front line, as President Vladimir Putin left empty-handed after a bloody winter offensive on Thursday, ahead of the war’s anniversary. He talked about Russia’s nuclear weapons.

After a series of poignant speeches marking the anniversary of his invasion, Putin on Thursday announced plans to deploy new Sarmat multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles this year. Earlier this week he suspended Russia’s participation in the START nuclear arms control treaty.

In comments published by the Kremlin, Putin said Russia would “focus more on strengthening the nuclear triad,” referring to land-based, sea-based and air-based nuclear missiles.

A year after Putin launched the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, Ukraine and its Western allies have broken off nuclear talks.

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Russia has seen infantry attacks on frozen ground in past weeks in battles described by both sides as the bloodiest of the war.

At a Ukrainian tank park near Baghmut, a small eastern city that has become a key Russian target, the sound of continuous explosions could be heard echoing in the distance.

“If we give up Buckmuth, everything else becomes more complicated. We cannot give up under any circumstances. We will be patient,” Junior Sergeant Ole Slavin, a tank operator, told Reuters. “We are currently in place and trying to retake all the territory.”

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Western officials said Russia was planning an offensive to seize new territory before the anniversary, using hundreds of thousands of reservists forced in recent months to declare victory to Putin.

Moscow’s forces made progress in trying to encircle Bakhmut, but failed to break Ukrainian lines near Kremmina in the north and Vuhledar in the south.

Ukrainian forces have repelled 90 Russian attacks in the northeast and east in the past 24 hours, the military said early Thursday. Ukrainian military spokesman Brigadier General Oleksiy Khromov said Moscow was trying to use its manpower to destroy Kiev’s forces.

“The enemy, despite significant losses, did not give up their efforts to encircle Bagmouth,” he said.

Ukraine has closed some schools to mark the anniversary of the war. But Kiev officials said they believed Moscow lacked the ability to make a dramatic show of force.

“Nothing unusual will happen. A typical (Russian) effort … a small missile attack is planned,” military intelligence chief Kirill Budanov told the Ukrainian Pravda news website. “Trust me, we’ve been through this more than 20 times.”

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said in a daily intelligence update that Moscow could be planning another large-scale attack on Vuhledar, despite costly failed strikes there this month. Two full brigades of thousands of elite Russian marines said last week that the battle had been derailed after suffering massive losses there.

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Ukraine’s central bank marked the anniversary of the invasion by issuing a new banknote commemorating the war’s resistance. One side shows three soldiers raising the Ukrainian flag after recapturing the Black Sea region of Snake Island, one of Kiev’s greatest victories of the war. The other side shows hands bound with tape to depict victims of war crimes.

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With no major battlefield victories announced in time for the anniversary, Putin instead turned to nuclear rhetoric, announcing in a keynote speech on Tuesday that Russia would end its participation in the New START arms control treaty.

US President Joe Biden took a swipe at Putin this week, addressing a crowd in Warsaw, saying the suspension of START was a “big mistake”: “I haven’t read what he’s thinking of using. Nuclear weapons or anything like that.”

The RS-28 Sarmat missiles, dubbed “Satan 2” announced by Putin on Thursday, were first unveiled in 2018 and are believed to have been deployed last year.

Shortly before Biden traveled to Ukraine, CNN reported that the United States believed Russia had botched the Sarmat test. Moscow did not comment.

Putin also promised to develop hypersonic missiles, which fly too fast to be fired. Russia is set to begin military exercises with China in South Africa on Friday and has sent a warship equipped with them.

Russia controls nearly a fifth of Ukraine after failing to capture Kyiv at the start of its “special military operation,” despite losing territory in major battlefield setbacks.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and troops on both sides are believed to have died in the past year. Russian artillery destroyed Ukrainian cities and sent millions of refugees flying.

Ukrainian troops have been stuck mainly on the defensive since their last offensive in November, hoping Russian forces will be exhausted from an assault filled with defenders. Meanwhile, Kiev has secured Western weapons pledges for a planned counter-offensive in 2023.

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In New York, the UN The General Assembly is expected to pass a resolution calling for an end to the invasion, marking the anniversary. Ukraine hopes to deepen Russia’s diplomatic isolation by securing a yes vote from nearly three-quarters of the countries. Moscow, which says the invasion was justified by threats to its security, calls the text biased.

“Russia has violated the UN Charter by becoming an aggressor,” said Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at the United Nations.

“We have heard implicit threats to use nuclear weapons. The so-called tactical use of nuclear weapons is absolutely unacceptable. It is time to step back from the brink,” Guterres said.

Report by Reuters Bureau; Written by Peter Graff; Editing by Nick MacPhee and Andrew Havens

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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