Ukraine will not give up on embattled Bakhmut in the east of the country, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said as Moscow’s forces continue their onslaught against a town the Ukrainian leader described as a “fortress”.
The hotly-contested town in the Donetsk region has been at the centre of fighting for months and Zelenskyy said on Friday that Ukrainian forces would continue to hold it for as long as possible, during a summit in Kyiv with EU leaders.
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“No one will surrender Bakhmut. We will fight as long as we can,” Zelenskyy said, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with President of the European Council Charles Michel, who was on his second visit to Kyiv in less than three weeks, and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“If weapon (deliveries) are accelerated – namely long-range weapons – we will not only not withdraw from Bakhmut, we will begin to de-occupy Donbas,” Zelenskyy added, referring to the eastern region comprised of the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces.
Moscow says Russian forces are encircling Bakhmut from several directions and battling to take control of a road that is also an important supply route for Ukrainian forces.
Zelenskyy’s defiant comments on the battle for Bakhmut came at the end of a two-day visit of several senior European Union officials to Kyiv, during which the Ukrainian leader called for his country’s rapid accession to the regional bloc.
Zelenskyy has been clear he wants Ukraine to join the EU as fast as possible and has said he wants the discussions to start this year.
“Our goal is absolutely clear: to start negotiations on Ukraine’s membership,” he said on Friday. “We will not lose a single day in our work to bring Ukraine and the EU closer together.”
In June last year, just months after the Kremlin launched its invasion of Ukraine, the EU extended candidate status to Kyiv but the path to full membership is likely to be fraught and could take years.
Von der Leyen and Michel reiterated the EU’s unwavering support for Ukraine during the Kyiv meeting.
Michel doubled down on his backing for Kyiv’s integration with Brussels, saying: “Ukraine is the EU, the EU is Ukraine.”
“Your future is with us. Your destiny is our destiny,” Michel wrote in a tweet.
The Ukrainian people have made a clear choice for freedom, democracy, and rule of law. And we in the EU have also made a clear decision.
Your future is with us. Your destiny is our destiny.
— Charles Michel (@CharlesMichel) February 3, 2023
The EU released a statement on Friday acknowledging that Ukraine had made “considerable efforts” to advance towards membership but urged Kyiv to implement further reforms.
Corruption is a key EU concern and Ukraine has widened efforts to tackle the issue with highly-publicised raids this week on an oligarch with political connections and a former interior minister.
“You are at war and, while being at war and defending your country against the aggressor, you’re able to deliver one deliverable after the next that is necessary to move forward,” von der Leyen said.
But she also cautioned that the process of accession was merit-based and said there could be “no rigid timelines” put in place for Ukrainian membership or talks.
Battle for Bakhmut
Throughout Friday morning, steady fighting continued in Bakhmut.
Smoke could be seen rising from the city centre, behind the golden-domed All Saints Church, and Ukrainian helicopters flew low towards Bakhmut over the frozen countryside to the northwest, the Agence-France Presse news agency reported.
A Belarusian volunteer fighting for Ukraine inside the city said there was no sign yet that 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,” he told the Reuters news agency.
A charity helping residents in the war-battered town said an attack on a car carrying volunteer paramedics killed one and injured several others the day before.
An investigation was under way but it could take several days to determine the identity of the victim after reports that foreign nationals may have been involved, a police official said.
Oleksandr Tkachenko, 65, said he and three other locals rushed to help when the car was hit, managing to pull an injured woman free from the vehicle.
He said it was “clear” that the car, which was destroyed in the attack, was not a military target.
Locals involved in the rescue were not soldiers, he added, but they also came under attack and were injured in a second attack as they tried to help.
“I don’t know how we didn’t get torn apart. I got shrapnel in my leg,” added Tkachenko, limping towards a community centre with the help of a walking stick.