KYIV (Feb 3): Ukrainians will fight "for as long as we can" to hold the eastern city of Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed on Friday, as he hosted European Union leaders to discuss further sanctions on Russia and Kyiv's EU prospects.
Shortly after Zelenskiy spoke, air raid sirens sounded once again in Kyiv and across the country — a regular occurrence during months of Russian missile attacks on Ukraine's energy infrastructure far from the battlefields in the east and south — but there were no immediate reports of new air strikes.
The head of the EU's executive Commission and the chairman of the 27 EU national leaders have travelled to Kyiv to demonstrate support for Ukraine as the first anniversary of Russia's Feb 24 invasion of its neighbour approaches.
Zelenskiy, flanked by the EU leaders at a news conference, said European sanctions should aim to ensure Russia cannot rebuild its military capability. And he had a defiant message on Bakhmut, the focal point of Ukrainian resistance to Russia's invasion and of Moscow’s drive to regain battlefield momentum.
"Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress," he said.
"If weapon (supplies) are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the (Russian) occupiers from the Donbas (region of eastern Ukraine), which was occupied since 2014."
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.
The rockets, known as Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB), could target all Russian-occupied territory on Ukraine's mainland, as well as parts of the Crimea peninsula seized by Moscow in 2014.
Moscow says Russian forces are encircling Bakhmut from several directions and battling to take control of a road which is also an important supply route for Ukrainian forces.
No EU fast track
Zelenskiy has called for more punitive EU sanctions against Russia, though new measures the bloc is preparing for the anniversary of the invasion are set to fall short of his government's demands.
Ukraine applied to join the EU days after Russia invaded last year. The EU has embraced the application, although it has rebuffed Ukraine's calls for a fast track to membership while the country is at war.
"The EU will support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people against Russia's ongoing war of aggression for as long as it takes," the EU leaders were expected to say a joint statement, a draft of which was seen by Reuters in advance.
EU officials have listed multiple membership requirements, from political and economic stability to adopting various EU laws. The process is likely to take years.
"The simple truth is that we are not there yet," an EU official said.
The EU has demanded more measures from Kyiv to tackle what is perceived as endemic state graft. Zelenskiy has announced dismissals and investigations of an array of officials in the past two weeks.
Asked at the news conference with Zelenskiy about Kyiv's membership bid, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said: "There are no rigid timelines, but there are goals that you have to reach,"
The EU will ban Russian refined oil products from Sunday, and EU envoys in Brussels on Friday aimed to agree to cap global prices of Russian fuels, to limit Moscow's ability to fund the war. A similar price cap on crude oil took effect in December.
The Kremlin said the ban would unbalance global energy markets but Moscow was acting to mitigate its impact. Russia's finance ministry said it would almost treble its daily sales of foreign currency to 8.9 billion roubles (US$130 million) a day over the next month to compensate for lower oil and gas revenue.
Russia's monthly budget revenues from oil and gas fell in January to their lowest level since August 2020 under the impact of Western sanctions on its most lucrative export, Finance Ministry data showed on Friday.
The German government said it had approved the delivery of Leopard 1 tanks to Ukraine from its stocks. The tanks could be delivered sooner than more advanced Leopard 2s that Germany and other countries pledged last week.
Ukraine's defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said the new tanks being supplied by NATO nations would serve as an "iron fist" in Kyiv's counteroffensive to smash through Russian defensive lines.
Russia has been intensifying pressure on Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv says Moscow is sending thousands of soldiers and mercenaries to their deaths for small gains.
"They bring in men from their draft and try systematically to find places to break through our defences," Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for the Ukrainian armed forces eastern front, told Ukrainian radio NV.
Moscow says a major objective in Ukraine is securing the rest of Donetsk province, one of four it claimed to have unilaterally annexed last year. Its forces have claimed incremental gains over the past week around Bakhmut.
A Belarusian volunteer fighting for Ukraine inside the city said there was no sign yet that Ukrainian forces were planning to pull out. "For the moment it's the opposite, the positions are being reinforced where the Russians are trying to cut us off... We're holding for now."
Reuters could not independently verify the situation there.