Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to stay on track in his campaign against Ukraine, warning that if counterattacks continue, a “more serious” military response will be unleashed.
Putin remained steadfast despite strong evidence that his troops suffered heavy losses in Ukraine’s counteroffensive this month.
The Russian leader said the main goal of the campaign remains “the liberation of the entire territory of Donbas” – the areas of eastern Ukraine, including Donetsk and Luhansk, which largely speak Russian.
“The plan is not subject to adjustment,” Putin said. “Our offensive operations in Donbas itself do not stop. They are moving at a slow pace… The Russian military is occupying newer areas.”
He accused Ukrainian troops of attempting to carry out “terrorist acts” and damage Russian civilian infrastructure.
“We are really very cautious in our response to this for the time being,” Putin said at a press conference on Friday. “If the situation continues to develop in this way, the reaction will be more severe.”
Meanwhile, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke to Putin on the phone on Tuesday after a gap of several months. According to the German government, the conversation lasted 90 minutes.
“The Russian president is pursuing his imperialist goal of annexing part of the neighboring territory,” Scholz told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
Scholz urged a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine, telling Putin that it should include a ceasefire, a full withdrawal of Russian troops and respect for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.
German weapons have helped “make a difference and made possible the successes, the current successes, that Ukraine is recording,” he added.
Scholz said there was “certain movement” in Putin’s tone about the war, but it was not significant.
‘Stubborn’ Russian defense
Russian forces are setting up a new line of defense in northeastern Ukraine after Kiev’s forces broke through the previous one, defense officials and analysts said on Saturday.
The new defense line is likely to be between the Oskil River and Svatove, 150 km (90 miles) southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, the British Defense Ministry said in an intelligence letter.
The frontline readjustment comes after a Ukrainian counter-offensive punched through the previous one in the war and recaptured large swaths of land in the northeastern region of Kharkov, which borders Russia.
Moscow “probably sees maintaining control of this zone as important because it is passed through one of the few main supply routes that Russia still controls from the Belgorod region of Russia,” the British military said.
“A stubborn defense of this area” was likely, but it remained unclear whether the Russians would be able to withstand another joint Ukrainian attack, it said.
‘Probably too weak’
According to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, Ukrainian forces continue to cross the main Oskil River in the Kharkiv region as they attempt to advance in a counter-offensive against Russian-occupied territory.
The institute said in its Saturday report that satellite images it examined indicate Ukrainian troops have crossed over to the eastern bank of the Oskil River in Kupiansk and placed artillery there. The river, which flows into Ukraine from Russia, has been a natural break in the newly formed front lines since Ukraine launched its advance about a week ago.
“Russian forces are likely too weak to prevent further Ukrainian advances along the entire Okil River if Ukrainian forces choose to resume offensive operations,” the institute said.
Videos circulating online on Saturday showed that Ukrainian troops also continue to take land in the country’s beleaguered east.
A video showed a Ukrainian soldier walking past a building whose roof had been destroyed, then pointing over his shoulder at a colleague who was hoisting the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag over a cell tower. The soldier in the video identified the seized village as Dibrova, just northeast of the city of Sloviansk and southeast of the disputed town of Lyman in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Another online video showed two Ukrainian soldiers in what appeared to be a clock tower. A Ukrainian flag flew as a soldier said they had captured the village of Shchurove, just northeast of Sloviansk.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian forces continued to shell towns and villages with rocket attacks and shelling.
‘Closer to Victory and Peace’
Western military aid to Ukraine has been crucial in its fight against the Russian invasion, and the political will to continue sending it must not falter, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said at a meeting of NATO’s Military Committee on Saturday.
“The ongoing counter-offensive proves that military aid is bringing Ukraine closer to victory and peace. Our focus must be on scaling up our aid and arms deliveries to curb Russian aggression as quickly as possible,” Kallas said in a speech.
Admiral Rob Bauer, chairman of NATO’s Military Committee, also praised Kiev’s recent battlefield successes.
“We are all in awe of the immense courage of the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the Ukrainian people in outsmarting their adversary time and again… Winter is coming, but our support will remain unwavering. It is crystal clear that this conflict is bigger than Ukraine. The entire international rule-based order is under attack,” Bauer said.