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With Russia Now In Fight For Existence, Nuclear War Threat All The More Poignant

Russian troops continue to arrive on a surge across the front lines in eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian soldiers said on Tuesday, while President Vladimir Putin reiterated his belief that Russia’s survival as a state is in danger as a result of the war—presumably a pre-text for him to use nuclear weapons. 

In eastern Donbas, Russia and Ukraine are locked in the bloodiest infantry battle in Europe since World War II, after Moscow launched its winter offensive with hundreds of thousands of newly called-up reserves and mercenaries. 

Putin has cast Moscow’s years-long incursion as a defensive counterattack to what he views as an antagonistic West intent on expanding into territories Russia has historically controlled. 

“So for us this is not a geopolitical task, but a task of the survival of Russian statehood, creating conditions for the future development of the country and our children,” he said during a visit to an aviation factory in Buryatia, some 4,400 km (2,750 miles) east of Moscow.

Putin has accused the West of using Ukraine as a tool to impose a “strategic defeat” on Russia. Kiev and its Western allies claim that Moscow is fighting an unprovoked war of imperial conquest, which has destroyed Ukrainian cities, killed thousands, and forced millions to flee their homes. Frontlines have barely moved during the more than four months Russia has been advancing during the winter, even as huge losses on both sides have been suffered.

“It is very tough in the east – very painful,” Zelensky said. “We have to destroy the enemy’s military power. And we shall destroy it.”

With offensives elsewhere along the front failing, Russia appears bent on holding off a push for the ruins of the small town of Bakhmut, which would mark its first victory since mid-2022. In a video address late yesterday, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the “future of Ukraine is being decided” by the fighting in the east, including in Bakhmut, where Ukrainian commanders said that they were killing enough Russian attackers to warrant remaining in and fighting over the crumbling town, which had been all but surrounded. 

Further north, along the frontline near Kreminna, 50-year-old Oleksandr, the commander of the 110th Battalion of Ukraines military, said Russian attacks were still unrelenting, even though he has claimed almost no territory there. The Russians were trying to push back toward Lyman, the main transit hub that Ukraine recaptured last year.

“They are pushing hard. They are lobbing mortar bombs at us,” Oleksandr told Reuters, describing Russian units advancing in three-man fire teams, with another wave behind them sent to replace them when they are killed.

“At night they always attack on foot and we sit, looking through our thermal goggles, and shooting them.”

The Kremlin, for its part, says Kiev needs to embrace the “new reality,” meaning that Russia has annexed almost one-fifth of Ukraine. 

“We have to achieve our goals. Right now this is only possible by military means due to the current position of the Kyiv regime,” Russian state news agencies quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.

Denis Pushilin, administrator of Russia-controlled parts of Donetsk Oblast in Ukraine, said that the fighting is taking place over “every inch” of Bakhmut. 

“We can see that the Ukrainian regime absolutely does not take into account the numerous losses in the (Ukrainian town of) Soledar and the direction of Bakhmut. In fact, with its orders, it grinds down its own soldiers,” Pushilin was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency.

After recovering large chunks of territory during the latter part of 2022, Kiev has mostly kept on the defensive in the last four months, as Moscow has launched its biggest offensive yet this winter, using newly mobilized reserves and captured convicts recruited as mercenaries from prison. 

Ukrainian officials said they are readying a counteroffensive of their own later in the year, after muddied terrain has dried up and hundreds of Western tanks and armored vehicles have arrived. But the outcome of these campaigns may hinge on which side emerges stronger from Russia’s winter offensive.

The British defense ministry said on Tuesday Moscow was running out of ammunition, “to such an extent that there is punitive shell rationing across much of the front line.” 

It said “This has almost certainly been a key reason why no Russian formation has recently been able to generate operationally significant offensive action,” it said in a daily intelligence update.

But Ukraine is also facing shell shortages, and in the end, it has little population to devote to the attrition fight.

Some military experts said Bakhmut is an unfavorable terrain on which Kiev would be fighting, facing Russian forces who had advanced far enough around the city to strike Ukrainian supply lines from behind. 

“We could lose here everything we wanted to use for those counter-offensives,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said of the battle for Bakhmut.

Both sides reported new civilian casualties close to the front. Zelensky said that Russian missiles had struck six tall buildings at Kramatorsk city center, killing at least one and injuring three. On the Russian-occupied side, the corpse of a woman lay in a street beside a destroyed storefront in Volnovakha, farther south. A Russian military investigator told Reuters that Ukrainian artillery had struck the area.

Off the battlefield, negotiators have reached an impasse over negotiations over the extension of a black-sea grain deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in an attempt to avert a global famine by guaranteeing exports during wartime from Ukraine and Russia, which are two of the world’s largest grain suppliers. The agreement is set to expire this week.

Russia says it has agreed to allow it to be extended by 60 days, in a move that the Kremlin describes as a gesture of “goodwill,” but will stall any further extensions unless it gets greater guarantees from the West to export fertilizer and crops. Kyiv rejected a 60-day extension, saying that the deal allowed extensions only for 120 days. It said that short term was not enough time for organizing new grain shipments.

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