Russia pounded the front line in Ukraine’s east and south with artillery strikes, Ukrainian military authorities said on Sunday, as Moscow pushed to break through Kyiv’s last remaining defenses around the city of Bakhmut and bombarded the Kherson region.
The strikes came as President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia suggested in an interview broadcast on Sunday that his country faced a long-term conflict with Western nations, which have pledged further military aid to Ukraine. Moscow’s latest attacks killed three civilians in the eastern Donetsk region, where Bakhmut is, and two others in Kherson, Ukrainian officials said.
Russia “keeps attacking the positions of Ukrainian troops” around Bakhmut, the Ukrainian military’s General Staff said on Sunday in its daily update. But it denied a claim made by Russia’s Wagner mercenary group that the village of Yahidne, northwest of the city, had fallen into Russian hands. Fighting flared in seven villages near Bakhmut on Sunday, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern group of forces, Serhiy Cherevaty, said in a television interview, adding that there had been 14 separate clashes on that section of the front line alone.
Bakhmut has for months been the focus of a grinding Russian campaign along the roughly 140-mile eastern front. Capturing Bakhmut would constitute Russia’s biggest battlefield victory in months, and the city is seen as key to seizing the entire Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, as Mr. Putin has ordered. Russian forces, including newly mobilized recruits and Wagner mercenaries, have taken a series of towns and villages around Bakhmut in recent weeks, as they seek to encircle Ukraine’s fighters there.
Both sides have sustained heavy losses in the battle for Bakhmut that, since it began last summer, has taken on outsized importance. The report from Ukraine’s General Staff detailed clashes on Saturday along a front line stretching around 60 miles from the towns of Lyman to Avdiivka, close to the regional capital of Donetsk. In all, three civilians were killed, the report said.
“Avdiivka is under heavy enemy fire. Today, the Russians have already shelled the town with artillery twice,” the head of the regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on the Telegram social messaging app. “Shells and rockets slammed into residential neighborhoods and an industrial zone, injuring at least one person,” he said.
Russia has stepped up its assaults in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks, as part of a renewed push to seize Donbas, which is made up of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk. Despite flooding the area with thousands more troops, Russia’s efforts so far have failed to yield significant territorial gains.
In the Luhansk region, Russian infantry troops attempted to storm Ukrainian positions near the contested town of Kreminna, according to the head of the regional military administration, Serhiy Haidai. Russian forces had for months been on the defensive around Kreminna, but more recently have attempted to break out from their positions along that part of the front line.
Russia’s Defense Ministry did not mention Kreminna in its daily update on Sunday, but said its troops had been firing on positions near the town and elsewhere in Luhansk and in Donetsk, near Bakhmut.
Ukraine has been gearing up for a renewed offensive of its own, with the goal of expanding the territorial gains it made last fall in the northeast and in the south, where it forced a Russian retreat from the city of Kherson.
Since pulling out of Kherson, Russian forces have rained down missiles on the city and its environs. There were 78 separate strikes with tanks, mortars and multiple rocket launchers on Saturday alone, the regional military administration said, adding that two people were killed and three others were injured.
With the war now in its second year, both sides have vowed to continue fighting. Mr. Putin last week prepared his country for a long war to be waged “step by step,” and in a brief interview broadcast Sunday, he again showed no hint of backing down.
Asked by a Russian state television reporter whether his country faced “eternal confrontation” with the West, Mr. Putin indicated that he believed just that. Repeating a staple of Kremlin propaganda, he said the West harbored plans to destroy Russia, and the war in Ukraine was part of an American-led effort to do so.
“They have one goal: to break up the former Soviet Union and its main part, the Russian Federation,” Mr. Putin said in the interview, which was recorded on Wednesday after he appeared at a rally at a Moscow stadium to mark Russia’s annual Defenders of the Fatherland holiday and the anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine.
Were the West to succeed in “destroying” Russia, Mr. Putin went on, “then I don’t even know if the Russian people as an ethnic group can survive in the form in which they exist today.”
The interview underscored that Mr. Putin sees himself as engaged in a long-term test of wills with the United States — and his apparent belief that the American-led Western alliance supporting Ukraine in its war effort could fracture.
Mr. Putin said that Russia was fighting a world order “built around the interests of just one country, the United States.” America’s allies understand this, Mr. Putin claimed. “They are well aware that everything that the States do is only in their selfish interests and often very much not even in the interests of their so-called allies.”
The United States and its allies have dismissed such comments by Mr. Putin before, and warned allies of Russia like China against aiding Moscow’s military effort. U.S. officials have said in recent days that Beijing may be preparing to give weapons and ammunition to Russia, and on Sunday President Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Washington was “watching closely.”
“We know they haven’t taken it off the table,” Mr. Sullivan told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “And we are sending a clear message, as are our European allies, that this would be a real mistake because those weapons would be used to bombard cities and kill civilians, and China should want no part of that.”
At the same time, Kyiv’s allies have stressed their commitment to support Ukraine for the long haul in the fight against Russia’s invasion — pledging in recent days to provide even more weapons and military support.
Ukraine will wait for more of those weapons to arrive before launching a counteroffensive in the south that aims to cut off the Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula from other territory that Moscow has seized, according to Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy intelligence chief.
“I believe we will be ready for a counteroffensive this spring,” Mr. Skibitsky was quoted as saying in an interview with the German news outlet Deutsche Welle that published on Sunday.
Any such offensive would likely push toward the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol, where Ukraine in recent weeks has targeted Russian forces with long-range strikes and sabotage attacks.
Mr. Skibitsky’s remarks about cutting off Crimea came on a symbolic day for Ukraine, the ninth anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the peninsula, which it then annexed illegally. The U.S. State Department described it as “a clear violation of international law” in a statement on Sunday in which spokesman Ned Price said: “The United States does not and never will recognize Russia’s purported annexation of the peninsula. Crimea is Ukraine.”
President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has repeatedly said that reclaiming Crimea is necessary to restoring sovereignty over all of Ukraine’s territory.
“By returning Crimea, we will restore peace,” he said on Sunday in a post on Telegram. “This is our land. Our people. Our history. We will return the Ukrainian flag to every corner of Ukraine.”
Edward Wong and Chris Cameron contributed reporting.