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President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is pushing to speed up construction of military fortifications at key points along the frontline in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have stepped up attacks in recent weeks.
The drive came as Zelenskyy admitted Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia had not achieved its goals. He placed part of the blame on the slow pace of western military aid to Kyiv.
Zelenskyy’s appeal to reinforce his military’s positions, made in an address, appeared to signal a strategic shift to defence after the counteroffensive launched in summer that aimed to retake significant areas of territory under Russian occupation.
Zelenskyy told the Associated Press in an interview in the Kharkiv region published on Friday that the onset of winter marked “a new phase of war, and that is a fact”. On the summer counteroffensive, he added: “We wanted faster results. From that perspective, unfortunately, we did not achieve the desired results. And this is a fact.”
Zelenskyy’s comments followed a day of visits to frontline positions in the eastern Kharkiv region and the southern Zaporizhzhia region. He was joined by Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, and the two were photographed meeting in Kharkiv with the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces and the general leading Ukraine’s forces in the country’s south.
Notably absent from the photos was Valeriy Zaluzhny, the popular commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, with whom Zelenskyy has had disagreements over the handling of the counteroffensive, according to several people close to the president.
“In all major areas . . . we need to boost and accelerate the construction of [defence] structures,” said Zelenskyy in his address on Thursday, laying out areas in the Donetsk, Kharkiv, Sumy, Chernihiv, Kyiv, Rivne and Volyn regions, along with southern Kherson, where the defences would be focused.
Russian forces are trying to seize the initiative on the battlefield before winter sets in and ahead of President Vladimir Putin’s expected announcement that he will run for re-election next year, throwing thousands of troops and heavy artillery into new offensives around the eastern cities of Avdiivka and Kupiansk.
In Avdiivka, an industrial city that sits just five miles north-west of the regional capital of Donetsk that was captured by Russia in 2014, Moscow’s forces are employing so-called human waves tactics. Russian planes are also dropping bombs, while ground forces are firing rockets and tank shells to try to overwhelm Ukrainian troops and encircle them.
The city, home now to just 1,300 of the prewar 30,000 residents, according to local authorities, is largely destroyed, with entire blocks flattened in the way that the nearby city of Bakhmut was over months of brutal warfare earlier this year.
US and Ukrainian officials estimated Russia had deployed at least three battalions with thousands of soldiers in the fight for Avdiivka, which began on October 9.
But Russia has also continued attacks elsewhere along the frontline and increased missile and drone bombardments targeting Ukraine’s critical infrastructure and residential areas, as temperatures plunge and snowfall covers much of the country.
On November 25, Russia launched its biggest drone attack on Ukraine since the start of Putin’s full-scale invasion almost two years ago. Ukraine’s air defences shot down 74 of 75 Iranian-made Shahed drones, including 66 aimed at Kyiv.
But the barrage was a worrying sign Russia would target the Ukrainian capital by air as it did last year, when neighbourhoods faced hours and days of blackouts.
“That is why a winter war is difficult,” said Zelenskyy in his interview.
He gave no indication that the apparent shift from offensive operations to a more defensive posture meant Ukraine was giving up its fight against its formidable foe.
Zelenskyy underscored Ukraine’s successes, including attacks on Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in Crimea, which has had its headquarters pummeled by missiles and several ships knocked out of commission by sea drones.
He also highlighted a grain corridor that Ukraine had managed to establish even after Moscow withdrew from a UN-backed agreement that ensured the safe passage of commercial cargo ships.
Ukrainian forces also managed last month to cross the Dnipro river and gain a small but tenuous foothold in the village of Krynky. They have since come under daily bombardment from Russia’s army, which has brought in reinforcements to halt the advance.
“Look, we are not backing down, I am satisfied. We are fighting with the second [best] army in the world [the Russian army], I am satisfied,” he told the AP of the counteroffensive. But he added: “We are losing people, I’m not satisfied. We didn’t get all the weapons we wanted, I can’t be satisfied, but I also can’t complain too much.”