By Tom Balmforth
KYIV -A Russian missile destroyed an apartment building in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk, killing at least three people before top European Union officials arrived in Kyiv for talks seen as key to Ukraine’s pivot towards the West.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed more anti-corruption measures as authorities continued raids ahead of the meetings with the EU, reflecting his determination to show that Kyiv can be a reliable steward of billions of dollars in aid.
“We are here together to show that the EU stands by Ukraine as firmly as ever. And to deepen further our support and cooperation,” the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted as she arrived in Kyiv by train on Thursday along with more than a dozen other senior EU officials.
However, unwilling to admit a country at war, the EU is set to dash Ukraine’s hopes of being swiftly allowed membership, underlining the need for more anti-corruption measures.
The team from Brussels will discuss sending more arms and money to Ukraine, increasing access for Ukrainian products to the EU, helping Kyiv cover energy needs, strengthening sanctions on Russia and prosecuting Russian leaders for the war.
The EU says it has already earmarked almost 60 billion euros in aid to Ukraine but Kyiv’s membership bid is expected to take years.
In his evening video address, Zelenskiy also gave another bleak assessment of the battlefield situation as Russian forces continued to make incremental gains in the east of the country as the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion looms on Feb. 24.
In Kramatorsk, a Russian Iskander-K tactical missile struck at 9:45 p.m. (1945 GMT) on Wednesday, killing at least three people and injuring 20 others, police said.
“At least eight apartment buildings were damaged. One of them was completely destroyed,” police said in a Facebook post.
“People may remain under the rubble.”
Kramatorsk is about 55 km (34 miles) northwest of Bakhmut, currently the main focus of fighting in eastern Ukraine.
‘TOUGHER’ ON EASTERNFRONT
Russia, determined to make progress before Ukraine gets newly promised Western battle tanks and armoured vehicles, has picked up momentum on the battlefield and announced advances north and south of Bakhmut, which has suffered persistent Russian bombardment for months.
“Definite increase has been noted in the offensive operations of the occupiers on the front in the east of our country. The situation has become tougher,” Zelenskiy said.
“The enemy is trying to achieve at least something now to show that Russia has some chances on the anniversary of the invasion,” he added.
Bakhmut and 10 towns and villages around it came under Russian fire, the Ukrainian military said late on Wednesday.
Russian forces are pushing from both the north and south to encircle Bakhmut, using their superior troop numbers to try to cut it off from re-supply and force the Ukrainians out, Ukrainian military analyst Yevhen Dikiy said.
“This for us is the most difficult scenario,” Dikiy told Espreso TV.
“The enemy is able to use its sole resource, which it has in excess, its men,” he said, describing a landscape to the northeast of Bakhmut “literally covered with corpses”.
Ukraine and its Western allies say Moscow has taken huge losses around Bakhmut, sending in waves of poorly equipped troops, including thousands of convicts recruited from prisons as mercenaries.
A former commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group who fled to Norway in January told Reuters he wanted to apologise for fighting in Ukraine and was speaking out to bring perpetrators of atrocities to justice.
“First of all, repeatedly, and again, I would like to apologise,” said 26-year-old Andrei Medvedev.
Ukraine has secured pledges of weapons from the West offering new capabilities – the latest expected this week to include rockets from the United States that would nearly double the range of Ukrainian forces.
“We’re focused on providing Ukraine the capability that it needs to be effective in its upcoming anticipated counter- offensive in the spring,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said during a visit to the Philippines on Thursday.
The new weapons would put all of Russia’s supply lines in eastern Ukraine, as well as parts of Crimea, within range of Ukrainian forces.
Moscow says such rockets will escalate the conflict but not change its course.
“The greater the range of the weapons supplied to the Kyiv regime the more we will have to push them back from territories which are part of our country,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state TV on Thursday. Moscow claims to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces last year, as well as Crimea which it seized in 2014.
Russian forces are probing areas of weakness in Ukraine’s defences on the western edges of Luhansk region, its governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian TV on Thursday.
“The amount of shelling has increased, the number of attacks in the direction of Svatove-Kreminna has increased… They are piling up our positions with bodies,” Gaidai said.
Reuters could not confirm the battlefield reports.
President Vladimir Putin sent troops into Ukraine last February in a “special military operation” to “disarm” its neighbour, and now casts the campaign as a fight to defend Russia against an aggressive West. Ukraine and the West call it an illegal war to expand Russian territory.