Zelenskiy vows to defend 'fortress' Bakhmut, hosts EU leaders in Kyiv
By Tom Balmforth and Dan Peleschuk
KYIV (Reuters) -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 prospects for joining the EU.
Meanwhile, the United States said it would send more than $2.175 billion 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 chairman 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 Zelenskiy'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 air strikes.
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.
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," Zelenskiy said.
The U.S. military aid announced on Friday included rockets known as Ground Launched Small Diameter Bombs (GLSDB), whose 151 km (94 mile) 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.
NO EU FAST TRACK
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.
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.
The EU has demanded Kyiv 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, the Commission's von der Leyen said: "There are no rigid timelines, but there are goals that you have to reach."
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 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. Russia will almost treble its daily sales of foreign currency to 8.9 billion roubles ($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, Finance Ministry data showed.
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.
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," 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 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 battlefield accounts.
(Reporting by Reuters bureauxWriting by Philippa Fletcher and Gareth JonesEditing by Peter Graff and Frank Jack Daniel)