Ukraine defends front, Putin talks up nuclear arsenal on war anniversary eve
YIV/NEAR BAKHMUT, Feb 23 (Reuters) - Ukraine said its forces had repelled Russian assaults along the length of the front line on Thursday on the eve of the war's anniversary, as President Vladimir Putin, empty-handed after a bloody winter offensive, talked up Russia's nuclear arsenal.
After a series of strident speeches in the runup to the anniversary of his invasion, Putin announced plans on Thursday to deploy new Sarmat multi-warhead intercontinental ballistic missiles this year. Earlier this week he suspended Russia's participation in the START nuclear arms control treaty.
Russia would "pay increased attention to strengthening the nuclear triad," Putin said in remarks released by the Kremlin, referring to nuclear missiles based on land, sea and in the air.
Ukraine and its Western allies have brushed off the nuclear talk as a diversion from a failing Russian military campaign on the ground, a year after Putin launched the biggest land war in Europe since World War Two.
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The last weeks have seen Russia mount infantry assaults across frozen ground in battles described by both sides as the bloodiest of the war.
At a Ukrainian tank park near Bakhmut, the small eastern city that has become Russia's main target, constant explosions could be heard echoing in the distance.
“If we give up Bakhmut, everything else will get even more complicated. We can’t give it up, under no circumstance. We will hold through," Junior Sergeant Oleh Slavin, a tank operator, told Reuters. "We are in place for now and trying to get all the territory back.”
Western officials said Russia had planned an offensive to capture new territory ahead of the anniversary, using hundreds of thousands of reservists conscripted in recent months to give Putin a victory to announce.
Moscow's forces have made progress trying to encircle Bakhmut, but have failed to break through Ukrainian lines to the north near Kremmina and to the south at Vuhledar, where they have taken heavy losses assaulting across open ground.
Ukrainian forces repelled 90 Russian attacks in the northeast and east over the past 24 hours, the military said early on Thursday. Ukrainian military spokesperson Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov said Moscow was trying to use its manpower advantage to exhaust Kyiv's forces.
"The enemy, despite significant losses, does not abandon attempts to surround Bakhmut," he said.
Ukraine has shut some schools for the war's anniversary in anticipation that Moscow might launch long-range missile attacks to mark the date. But Kyiv officials said they believe Moscow no longer has the capability for a dramatic show of force.
"Nothing unusual will happen. Usual (Russian) effort... A small missile strike is planned," military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov told the Ukrainska Pravda news website. "Believe me, we have experienced this more than 20 times."
Britain's defence ministry said in a daily intelligence update that Moscow could be planning another large-scale assault on Vuhledar, despite costly failed attacks there this month. It said last week that two full brigades of thousands of elite Russian marines had been rendered combat ineffective because of massive losses there.
Ukraine's central bank marked the invasion anniversary by issuing a new banknote commemorating resistance in the war. One side shows three soldiers hoisting the Ukrainian flag after recapturing the Black Sea outcrop of Snake Island, one of Kyiv's biggest victories of the war. The other side shows hands bound together with tape, to depict war crime victims.
With no major battlefield victories to report in time for the anniversary, Putin has instead turned to nuclear rhetoric, announcing in a major speech on Tuesday that Russia would suspend participation in the New START arms control treaty.
U.S. President Joe Biden, who upstaged Putin this week by journeying unannounced to Kyiv and addressing a crowd in Warsaw, called the suspension of START a "big mistake" but said on Wednesday: "I don't read into that that he's thinking of using nuclear weapons or anything like that."
The RS-28 Sarmat missiles, dubbed "Satan 2", whose deployment Putin announced on Thursday were first unveiled in 2018 and already supposed to have been deployed last year.
CNN reported that the United States believes Russia carried out a failed test of the Sarmat just before Biden visited Ukraine. Moscow has not commented.
Putin also promised to produce more hypersonic missiles, which fly too fast to be shot down. Russia is due to begin military exercises with China in South Africa on Friday and has sent a frigate equipped with them.
Russia still controls nearly a fifth of Ukraine, despite losing swathes of territory in major battlefield setbacks after failing to capture Kyiv at the outset of its "special military operation".
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and troops on both sides are believed to have died in the past year. Russian artillery has destroyed Ukrainian cities and set millions of refugees to flight.
Ukrainian troops have stuck mainly to defence since their last offensive in November, hoping Russian forces replenished with reservists will be exhausted from attacking. Kyiv has meanwhile received pledges of Western weapons for a planned counter-offensive later in 2023.
In New York, the U.N. General Assembly is expected to mark the eve of the invasion's anniversary by passing a resolution demanding a halt to it. Ukraine hopes to deepen Russia's diplomatic isolation by seeking yes votes from nearly three-quarters of countries. Moscow, which says the invasion was justified by threats to its security, calls the text biased.
"Russia violated the U.N. Charter by becoming an aggressor," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba said at the United Nations. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday also denounced the invasion as a violation of the Charter.
"We have heard implicit threats to use nuclear weapons. The so-called tactical use of nuclear weapons is utterly unacceptable. It is high time to step back from the brink," Guterres said.