Ukraine says fighting has “intensified” in the east of the country as Russian President Vladimir Putin dismissed Kyiv’s counteroffensive as a failure.
A top Ukrainian defence official said on Sunday that Russian forces and Ukrainian troops were clashing in at least three areas on the eastern front.
Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said on Telegram that Russian forces have been attacking in the direction of Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region for two successive days.
“We are on the defensive,” Maliar wrote. “There are fierce battles. The positions of both sides change dynamically several times a day.”
Maliar also said that the two armies were pummelling one another around the ruined city of Bakhmut, but that Ukrainian forces were “gradually moving forward” along its southern flank.
She said that Kyiv’s troops were also fending off Russian attacks near Avdiivka and Marinka.
Al Jazeera’s Assed Baig, reporting from Kostyantynivka, about 20km (12.4 miles) from Bakhmut, said Maliar’s description of fierce fighting and changing positions was “sobering”.
“That’s quite honest from the Ukrainian deputy defence minister because what we normally hear is about the Ukrainian advances, but what we are hearing from the Ukrainians is that the Russians are pushing back,” Baig said.
In an excerpt of an interview published on Sunday, Putin said the Ukrainian military has made no progress in its counteroffensive, which aims to retake occupied territory and seize the initiative in Russia’s full-scale invasion, which is in its 17th month.
“All enemy attempts to break through our defences … they have not succeeded since the offensive began. The enemy is not successful,” Putin said in a clip published by state broadcaster Rossiya TV reporter Pavel Zarubin.
Ukraine last month began its highly anticipated counteroffensive after stockpiling Western weapons and building up its offensive forces.
It has, however, admitted difficult battles and called on the United States and other allies to provide long-range weapons and artillery.
Putin also said Russia had a “sufficient stockpile” of cluster bombs and that Moscow reserved the right to use them if such munitions were used against Russian forces in Ukraine.
In his first comments on the delivery of cluster munitions to Ukraine from the US, Putin said that Russia has not used cluster bombs in its war in Ukraine so far. “Until now, we have not done this, we have not used it, and we have not had such a need,” he said.
However, in April 2022, Russia was accused of using cluster munitions in the Kramatorsk railway station attack, which killed 63 civilians, nine of them children.
Grain deal expiry looms
Putin has yet to announce whether Moscow will renew the grain deal that allowed the resumption of Ukrainian exports through the Black Sea, temporarily halted when the invasion began in February 2022.
Set to expire late on Monday, the deal was brokered by the United Nations and Turkey and signed by Russia and Ukraine in July 2022 to establish a protected sea corridor via which Ukrainian agricultural goods could reach global markets.
Russia, however, says obstacles to its own exports remain, and has threatened to pull out of the Black Sea Grain Initiative.
On Saturday, the Kremlin said Russia still had concerns about the deal.
“Vladimir Putin stressed that the obligations … to remove obstacles to the export of Russian food and fertilisers still remain unfulfilled,” a Kremlin statement said.
“The main goal of the deal, namely the supply of grain to countries in need, including on the African continent, has not been implemented,” it said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres supports removing hurdles to Russia exporting its fertilisers and sent Putin a letter on the subject on Tuesday.
By ensuring the security of maritime cargo traffic in the Black Sea – along with inspections to counter arms shipments – the deal has allowed the export of nearly 33 million tonnes of grain since it entered into force on August 1, 2022. Most shipments were comprised of wheat and maize.
The accord helped bring down prices that had shot higher following Russia’s invasion and avoid hunger in countries heavily dependent upon imports.