Russia bombarded Ukraine with missiles and struck its largest oil refinery, Kyiv said, while the head of the Wagner mercenary group predicted the long-besieged city of Bakhmut would fall within a couple of months.
Following a pattern of heavy bombardments after Ukrainian battlefield or diplomatic gains, Russia launched 36 missiles in the early hours of the morning, Ukraine’s Air Force said.
The missiles triggered air-raid sirens and landed across Ukraine, including at the Kremenchuk refinery, where the extent of damage was unclear.
About 16 were shot down, the Air Force added.
“Another massive missile attack by the terrorist state on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” the Ministry of Defence tweeted. Ukraine said the barrage included three KH-31 missiles and one Oniks anti-ship cruise missile, which its air defences cannot shoot down.
Meanwhile, Belarus, which allowed Russia to use its territory to send troops into Ukraine at the start of the war, said it would only fight alongside its ally if it was attacked.
Bolstered by tens of thousands of reservists, Russia has intensified ground attacks across southern and eastern Ukraine, and a major new offensive appears to be shaping as the first anniversary of its February 24 invasion nears.
Russia’s current focus is on the small city of Bakhmut in Donetsk, one of two regions making up the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland now partially occupied by Russia.
In battles led by the Wagner group swelled by prison recruits, Russia has for months been pounding and attempting to encircle Bakhmut. Most of its pre-war population of about 70,000 people have left, leaving Ukrainian soldiers dug in.
The capture of Bakhmut would give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger Donetsk cities further west, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. But Ukraine and allies say seizing Bakhmut would be a pyrrhic victory given the months it has taken and the huge losses they say Russia has sustained.
In an interview with a pro-war military blogger, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin forecast Bakhmut would fall by April, depending on how many men Ukraine threw into the fight and how well his men were supplied.
“To take Bakhmut you have to cut all supply routes. It’s a significant task,” he said, adding: “Progress is not going as fast as we would like.”
“Bakhmut would have been taken before the New Year, if not for our monstrous military bureaucracy,” he added.
Prigozhin has previously accused the Russian military of attempting to “steal” victories from Wagner, a sign of his rising clout and the potential for dangerous rifts in Moscow.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Samuel Ramani an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute said this is not the first time Prigozhin has criticised Russia’s leadership.
“I don’t think it’s very surprising that Prigozhin would lash out at Russian leadership in this manner,” Ramani said.
“Russia wants victories and Yevgeny Prigozhin is just not delivering them,” Ramani said.
As Ukraine burns through munitions fast and clamours for heavier firepower, including tanks and fighter jets, NATO members are ramping up production and promised more during meetings in Brussels this week.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s army has received vast amounts of aid. The United States alone has committed $27.4bn since Russia launched its full-scale invasion last February.
Russia calls the invasion a “special military operation” against security threats and has cast deliveries of heavy weapons to Ukraine as proof that the West is escalating the war.
Kyiv and its allies call Russia’s actions a war of aggression.
In Brussels, diplomats said European Union countries were “on good track” to adopt a 10th package of economic sanctions against Moscow in time for the invasion’s anniversary, the Reuters news agency reported.