Western support for Ukraine hardened on Friday as the European Union came close to approving an embargo on Russian oil, amid fresh assessments that the Russian military’s offensive in the east was faltering, hampered by logistical problems and strong Ukrainian resistance.
The oil embargo, which would be staggered over a period of a few months, is expected to be approved by EU ambassadors next week, in a step that should avoid the lengthy process of gathering heads of state.
News of the European oil embargo came amid a flurry of activity aimed at providing Ukraine with more arms and support, while bolstering NATO defenses, as the Kremlin and Western allies seemed to be preparing for an interminable struggle that risked spilling over from Ukraine’s borders.
President Biden’s Thursday request for Congress to approve $33 billion to bolster Ukraine’s arsenal and economy was followed by new pledges from allies. The British military said on Friday it would deploy 8,000 troops to Europe, who were to join tens of thousands of troops from NATO countries in drills to deter further Russian aggression.
As NATO allies’ commitments to Ukraine have increased, the Russian offensive in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine has shown signs of faltering amid heavy losses on the battlefield and was now “several days behind schedule,” a senior Pentagon official said on Friday.
Britain’s Defense Intelligence Agency largely agreed, saying on Friday that “Russian territorial gains have been limited and achieved at significant cost to Russian forces.”
In a video released on Friday, an aide to the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, called the Russian losses “colossal”.
The Russian military is trying to surround Ukrainian troops in the Donbas region by attacking from the north, east and south, but has made little progress, experts and Pentagon officials say.
Victory in the Donbass campaign is vital to Moscow’s plans to carve out much of southern and eastern Ukraine, from Odessa in the south to Mariupol and as far north as Kharkiv, and place under Russian rule or even outright annexation.
Moscow now has 92 battalion groups fighting in the Donbass – down from 85 a week ago, but still well below the 125 it had in the first phase of the war, the Pentagon official said. Each battalion group has about 700 to 1,000 men.
Russia still has massive firepower in the region, but many of these battalions were badly damaged in early fighting around the capital, Kyiv, and were brought back into action in Donbass before returning to full force. combat force, the Pentagon official said.
Some military experts gave a gloomier assessment of Russia’s prospects on Friday. Dr Mike Martin, a visiting fellow in war studies at King’s College London, told the BBC the Russian offensive had ‘sort of failed’ and the battle for eastern Ukraine could be over in two to four weeks.
Russia’s early failures, its inability to pull off ‘a few bold moves’ in recent fighting and Ukraine’s growing battlefield prowess are sparking a ‘major strategic shift’ among Western nations , he said, as they expand their goals beyond defending Ukraine to defeating Russia and degrading its military.
In an effort to bolster its forces, Russia unleashed a barrage of missile and artillery strikes all along the front, continuing its strategy of targeting civilian and military targets. “This is the coldest, most depraved brutality,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday.
On Friday, Ukrainian troops launched a counterattack in northern Donbass, retaking Ruska Lozova, a town of about 6,000 people about 20 km north of Kharkiv that has been occupied by Russian forces since March.
Many of the city’s remaining residents quickly evacuated, taking advantage of the now open road to Kharkiv. Cars, some riddled with bullets, limped through the city, full of luggage, people and pets.
The Battle of Ruska Lozova is part of a larger campaign launched by Ukrainian forces in recent weeks to draw Russian troops away from Kharkiv and hopefully place it out of Russian artillery range. The fighting was fierce, as the Russian border is about 20 miles from the city.
Before the war, Kharkiv was Ukraine’s second largest city with a population of around 1.4 million. But it’s now a shell of itself, with many of its quarters gutted, after relentless bombardment.
In another sign of Moscow’s sense of urgency, several of the 12 battalion groups fighting in Mariupol were sent to fight in Donbass, the Pentagon official said, even as Ukrainian fighters held out in the besieged city.
The remaining Russian forces continued to pound Mariupol in their struggle to eliminate the last pocket of resistance there. On Friday, the city’s mayor issued a desperate appeal to the international community to rescue those still trapped in a huge steelworks that has become the last stronghold for Ukrainian fighters and civilians.
Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of Mariupol, said there were more than 600 injured – including soldiers and civilians – at the Azovstal compound. “They have been there for more than 60 days and they are begging to be rescued,” he said, reiterating that supplies of water, medicine and ammunition were running out quickly. “It’s not a matter of days, it’s a matter of hours.”
About 20,000 civilians were killed, he said, but denied that the city had been fully conquered.
The European Union’s decision to ban imports of Russian oil, a long-delayed move that has divided bloc members and highlighted their dependence on Russian energy sources, was another sign that the Ukraine’s Western allies were increasing their support by taking tough action to punish Russia.
It took weeks for EU countries to agree on the outlines of the measure, and intensive talks will continue over the weekend before the European Commission, the bloc’s executive, puts forward a proposal finalized on paper for EU ambassadors to approve, several EU officials and diplomats. involved in the said process.
The diplomats and officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the progress of the sensitive talks.
Russia is Europe’s biggest oil supplier, supplying about a quarter of the bloc’s annual needs, according to 2020 data, or about half of Russia’s total exports. As the oil embargo is phased in, officials said the bloc would seek to fill the gap by increasing imports from other sources, such as Persian Gulf countries, Nigeria, Kazakhstan and India. Azerbaijan.
The fact that the European Union is now apparently able to find a compromise between its 27 member countries on such a difficult measure highlights a fundamental miscalculation by Russian President Vladimir V. Putin in his assault on Ukraine: in instead of sowing discord, the war has forged a united front that facilitates difficult compromises.
“More important than the oil embargo is the signal that Europe is united and taking back the initiative,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director for Europe at Eurasia Group, a consultancy. Mr Rahman said a more drastic cut in oil imports would have been more painful for Russia, but also too costly for Europe, risking eroding public support for Ukraine.
If enacted next week, as planned, the oil embargo will be the most important new step in the sixth EU sanctions package since Russia invaded Ukraine. It will also include sanctions against Russia’s biggest bank, Sberbank, which has so far been spared, officials said.
Germany’s position was decisive in finalizing the new measure; the country, the bloc’s economic leader, was importing about a third of its oil from Russia at the time of the invasion of Ukraine. But its influential energy minister, Robert Habeck, said this week that Germany had been able to reduce that percentage to just 12% in recent weeks, making a full embargo “manageable”.
“The problem that seemed very big for Germany only a few weeks ago has become much smaller,” Habeck told media during a visit to Warsaw on Tuesday. He added: “Germany is very, very close to independence from Russian oil imports.” But he didn’t explain how he was able to accomplish this so quickly.
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kharkov, Ukraine. Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington, and Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow, Poland.