Intense fighting continued for the centre of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the site of the longest and bloodiest battle since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
“Assault detachments [of the Russian paramilitary group] Wagner are attacking from several locations, trying to break through the defence of our troops and advance to the central districts,” Oleksandr Syrsky, a Ukrainian ground forces commander in Bakhmut, said on Monday.
“The closer we are to the city centre, the harder the fighting is, and the more artillery there is,” echoed Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner paramilitary group.
On Sunday, he also described the situation in the city as “difficult, very difficult, with the enemy fighting for each metre.”
The city, which had a pre-war population of around 70,000 people, has been the epicentre of fighting on the eastern front for months, even though its strategic importance is disputed by experts.
60-day extension to grain export deal
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Verchinin said after talks in Geneva that Moscow “is not opposed to a further extension” of the Ukrainian grain agreement reached last July between the UN, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey.
“But only for 60 days,” he said, stressing that “our future position will be determined by tangible progress in the normalization of our agricultural exports, not in words but in deeds.”
The UN and Turkey brokered the deal between the warring countries that allows Ukraine — one of the world’s key breadbaskets — to ship food and fertilizer from three of its Black Sea ports.
The 120-day agreement was renewed last November. That extension expires on Saturday, and another 120-day extension was on the table.
“The UN Secretary-General has confirmed that the UN will do everything possible to preserve the integrity of the Black Sea Grain Initiative and ensure its continuity,” a UN statement said.
Ukraine and Russia are key global suppliers of wheat, barley, sunflower oil and other food to countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where millions don’t have enough to eat. Russia was also the world’s top fertilizer exporter before the war.
The loss of those supplies drove global food prices higher and fuelled concerns of a hunger crisis.
Fighter jets for Ukraine
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said Monday she was open to discussions on giving Ukraine F-18 fighter jets.
The Ukrainian military has asked for F-16s, the most widely available American-made aircraft, which are increasingly being replaced by newer models.
And in December, Finland announced it would order 64 F-35As from US manufacturer Lockheed Martin.
“Ukraine needs even heavier equipment … the next big issue is fighter jets and air defence, more broadly,” Marin said.
“We have the new F-35s coming in… When these old Hornets are scrapped, we can discuss their future use.”
However, the F-35s are not due to arrive until 2025.