Ukrainian forces continued their advance against the Russian military in the southern Kherson region Tuesday, pushed back Russian mercenaries from Bakhmut in eastern Donetsk, and gained new momentum in Luhansk, where they seized a key highway between the towns of Kreminna and Svatove.
Away from the battlefield, the Kremlin continued to push a claim, asserted repeatedly without evidence, that Kyiv was preparing to use a “dirty bomb,” a weapon that combines conventional explosives with radioactive material — an accusation that was dismissed by the United States and other Western nations.
U.S. officials said that Moscow’s allegations raised a risk that Russia itself was planning to carry out a radiation attack, potentially as a pretext to justify further escalation of the war amid its continuing territorial setbacks.
In a statement Tuesday, Ukraine’s nuclear energy operator, Energoatom, issued a similar warning, citing the Russian military’s control over the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Enerhodar. “Energoatom assumes that such actions of the occupiers may indicate that they are preparing a terrorist act using nuclear materials and radioactive waste stored at the ZNPP site,” the statement said.
The renewed fears of some kind of radiation attack added to the ominous sense that Putin’s war in Ukraine is growing even more deadly and dangerous as each side seeks to redraw facts on the ground before winter.
Ukraine has been pushing hard for further territorial gains, while Russia this month began a relentless bombing campaign against Ukraine’s energy system, using missiles and attack drones in an apparent bid to plunge the country into cold and darkness, and potentially compensate for battlefield losses.
As Ukraine continued to make gains, pro-Kremlin military bloggers and analysts confirmed new setbacks for Russia’s forces Tuesday, including in Luhansk, the easternmost occupied region of Ukraine, where Russia has had its firmest grip.
“The Ukrainian army has resumed its counteroffensive in the Luhansk direction,” the pro-Russian WarGonzo project said in its daily military update, adding that Ukrainian forces took control of a key highway between the Luhansk towns of Svatove and Kreminna.
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“The Russian artillery is actively working on the left bank of Zherebets river and is trying to stop the transfer of reinforcements to the enemy but the situation is very difficult,” WarGonzo said.
In the Donetsk region, the Wagner paramilitary force, controlled by St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin, appeared to be getting pushed back from Bakhmut, where the mercenaries had spent weeks pummeling the city but making small gains. Military experts said there was little strategic value in seizing Bakhmut, but Prigozhin seems to see a chance to claim a political prize, while regular Russian military units lose ground in other combat zones.
Ukrainian forces have recaptured a concrete factory on Bakhmut’s eastern outskirts, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War reported Monday. On Sunday, Prigozhin acknowledged the slow pace of Wagner’s effort, saying the mercenaries were gaining only “100-200 meters a day.”
“Our units are constantly meeting with the most fierce enemy resistance, and I note that the enemy is well prepared, motivated, and works confidently and harmoniously,” Prigozhin said in a statement published by his catering company’s press service. “This does not prevent our fighters from moving forward, but I cannot comment on how long it will take.”
In the southern Kherson region, one of the four Moscow claimed to have annexed, Russian forces appeared to be preparing to defend the city of Kherson, amid speculation they would pull back to the eastern side of the Dnieper River, ceding crucial ground.
The Ukrainian military said in its Tuesday operational update that Russian troops were setting up “defensive positions” along the east bank of the Dnieper and leaving small passages for a potential retreat from the west bank.
Speculation on whether Moscow is preparing to abandon Kherson has been circulating for weeks after Ukrainian forces made steady breakthroughs in the southern direction.
“I don’t know all the nuances and plans of the command, but I don’t exclude the surrender of Kherson as from a military point of view its defense at the moment could turn into a rout,” a popular Russian military blogger, who writes under the moniker Zapiski Veterana, wrote in a Telegram post. “But I think that if a decision was made in Moscow to fight until victory, then there is nothing tragic in the surrender of Kherson because this war is here for a long time.”
Moscow may not have a choice. “The Russian position in upper Kherson Oblast is, nevertheless, likely untenable,” the Institute for the Study of War said.
Kremlin-installed officials have been forcing residents to evacuate from the west bank of the Dnieper while claiming without evidence that Kyiv is preparing attacks on the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, as well as the “dirty bomb” allegations.
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The United States, France and Britain accused Moscow of using allegations of a dirty bomb as a pretext for escalation, and they warned that Putin’s government would face additional punitive action by the West.
On Tuesday, the Kremlin called Washington’s distrust of Russia’s claims “an impermissible and frivolous approach.”
After a two-week bombing campaign, in which Moscow systemically targeted energy infrastructure, Kyiv is increasingly concerned about civilians enduring a bitter winter. Ukrainian officials have spent the past few weeks pressing European officials for more sophisticated weapons, particularly the advanced air defense systems required to fend off Russia’s aerial assaults.
The country also faces an urgent cash crunch, with officials raising questions about how Ukraine will secure funding to keep services running through the brutal weeks and months ahead. An early October projection from the World Bank suggested Ukraine’s economy will contract by 35 percent this year.
On Tuesday, Germany and the European Union hosted a conference in Berlin about reconstruction, though the conversation seemed especially premature given Russian attacks that yield fresh destruction each day.
President Volodymyr Zelensky has said Ukraine needs about $38 billion in emergency economic aid for next year alone. But while top officials regularly trumpet the E.U.’s support for Ukraine, there are questions about short- and long-term follow-through.
Even as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has touted plans to help Ukraine through 2023, for instance, E.U. officials acknowledge delays in delivering to Kyiv the roughly $9 billion in loans pledged earlier this year.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen pressed European counterparts in recent weeks to step up financial assistance to Kyiv and has indirectly questioned the decision to offer loans rather than grants.
“We are calling on our partners and allies to join us by swiftly disbursing their existing commitments to Ukraine and by stepping up in doing more,” Yellen said this month. In a video address to a European Council summit in Brussels last week, Zelensky called out European leaders for failing to deliver much-needed economic assistance quickly enough.
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“Thank you for the funds that have already been allocated,” Zelensky said. “But a decision has not yet been made on the remaining $6 billion from this package — which is critically needed this year.”
“It is in your power,” he continued, “to reach a principled agreement on the provision of this assistance to our state today already.”
With existing needs unmet, some wonder how seriously to take the E.U.’s promises of an effort of Marshall Plan proportions. A Q&A published by Germany’s Group of Seven presidency ahead of Tuesday’s conference noted that the event would not include a “pledging segment.” Instead, the purpose is to “underline that the international community is united and resolute in its support to Ukraine.”
In private conversations, some E.U. diplomats raised questions about whether the bloc ought to be allocating resources for the reconstruction of a country that is still very much at war, particularly given Europe’s own energy and economic crises.
As von der Leyen spoke in Berlin on Tuesday, the focus in Brussels was very much on efforts to find common ground among the E.U.’s own member states on emergency energy measures.