Zelenskyy vows to defend ‘fortress’ Bakhmut

Ukrainians will fight “for as long as we can” to hold the eastern city of Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed on Friday, as he hosted European Union (EU) leaders to discuss further sanctions on Russia and Kyiv’s prospects for joining the EU.

Meanwhile, the United States said it would send more than $2.175 billion US worth of military aid to Ukraine, including a new rocket that will double Kyiv’s strike range to reach most Ukrainian territory now held by the Russians.

The head of the EU’s executive commission and the chair of the 27 EU national leaders were in Kyiv to demonstrate support for Ukraine as the first anniversary of Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion of its neighbour approaches.

As they and Zelenskyy’s government discussed a range of issues, air raid sirens sounded 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 reports of new airstrikes.

People gather in a subway station being used as a bomb shelter during an air siren in Kyiv on Friday. (Daniel Cole/The Associated Press)

Zelenskyy, 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.

Russian forces closing in

Moscow says Russian forces are encircling the city that had a pre-war population of around 75,000 from several directions and battling to take control of a road which is also an important supply route for Ukrainian forces.

“If weapon (supplies) are accelerated, specifically long-range weapons, not only will we not abandon Bakhmut but we will also begin to remove the occupiers from the Donbas (region of eastern Ukraine), occupied since 2014,” Zelenskyy said.

The U.S. military aid announced on Friday included rockets known as Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB). Their 94-kilometre range would put all of Russia’s supply lines in eastern Ukraine within reach, as well as part of the Crimea peninsula, also seized by Moscow in 2014.

Sanctions from EU, Canada

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said a 10th sanctions package would hit “trade and technology that supports Russia’s war machine.”

The package, which the EU is preparing for the anniversary of the invasion, is set to fall short of some of Ukraine’s demands, and Kyiv’s ambition to join the EU may take longer than it would like.

Three people stand at a podium.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, centre, speaks with European Council president Charles Michel, left, and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen during the EU-Ukraine summit in Kyiv on Friday. (Efrem Lukatsky/The Associated Press)

Ukraine applied to join the EU days after Russia invaded last year. The EU has embraced the application, but rebuffed Ukraine’s calls for a fast track to membership while the country is at war.

EU officials have listed multiple membership requirements, from political and economic stability to adopting various EU laws. The process is likely to take years.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced on Friday that Canada is imposing further sanctions on Russian individuals and companies over their country’s invasion of Ukraine last February.

“Canada is sanctioning 38 individuals and 16 entities that are complicit in peddling Russian disinformation and propaganda,” Joly said.

Fuel price caps

EU countries agreed on Friday on a commission proposal to set price caps on Russian oil products from Sunday to limit Moscow’s ability to fund the war. They include a $100 US cap on premium oil products such as diesel and a $45 limit per barrel on discounted products such as fuel oil, diplomats said.

A similar price cap on crude oil took effect in December.

The Kremlin said the plan would unbalance global energy markets but Moscow was acting to mitigate its impact on oil and gas revenue. Russia will almost triple its daily sales of foreign currency to 8.9 billion roubles ($174 million Cdn) a day over the next month to compensate for lower oil and gas revenue.

Tanks and an air defence system

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 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 a counteroffensive to smash through Russian lines.

Meanwhile, France and Italy have finalized technical talks for the joint delivery of a SAMP/T-MAMBA air defence system to Ukraine in spring 2023, the French Defence Ministry said.

“This will allow Ukraine to defend itself against Russian drones, missiles and plane attacks, through the coverage of a significant part of the Ukrainian territory,” a ministry statement said.

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