By Tom Balmforth and Tatiana Gomozova
KYIV/VOLGOGRAD (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged European leaders visiting Kyiv on Thursday to pile more sanctions on Russia, where President Vladimir Putin evoked a famous World War Two victory over the Nazis to rally his nation.
The West has imposed sweeping punitive measures since Russia’s nearly year-old invasion of Ukraine that has devastated cities, killed tens of thousands of people, forced millions to flee their homes and shaken the global economy.
In the latest violence, a Russian missile destroyed apartments in Kramatorsk, killing at least three people and trapping others under rubble, police said.
Moscow said it struck U.S.-made rocket launchers in the area about 55 km (34 miles) northwest of Bakhmut city, the main focus of fighting in eastern Ukraine where Russia has been making incremental gains in recent weeks.
Speaking in Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad where the Soviet army defeated Nazi forces 80 years ago, Putin predicted a new victory in Ukraine. He lambasted Germany for helping to arm Ukraine and said he was ready to draw on Russia’s entire arsenal, which includes nuclear weapons.
“Unfortunately we see that the ideology of Nazism in its modern form and manifestation again directly threatens the security of our country,” Putin said in a speech.
“Again and again we have to repel the aggression of the collective West. It’s incredible but it’s a fact: we are again being threatened with German Leopard tanks with crosses on them.”
In response, Ukraine’s Defence Ministry tweeted in English that “Russia’s spiritual heirs of the Nazis are wiping Ukrainian cities off the face of the earth … For them, Stalingrad should serve as a reminder of their inevitable defeat. All aggressors end up the same way.”
Putin casts his “special military operation” in Ukraine as a fight to “disarm” his neighbour, a fellow former Soviet republic, and defend Russia against an aggressive West. Ukraine and the West call it an illegal war to expand Russian territory.
‘DEMOCRACIES V REGIMES’
After arriving in the capital Kyiv by train for talks about Ukraine’s aspiration to join the European Union, the head of the bloc’s executive Commission pledged more financial, military and political aid for Ukraine.
She also announced the creation of an international centre in The Hague to prosecute crimes of aggression in Ukraine.
“This is a fight of democracies against authoritarian regimes,” Ursula von der Leyen told a joint news conference with Zelenskiy. “We will keep turning up the pressure further,”
The Ukrainian leader urged more sanctions, saying the pace had “slightly slowed” and that Moscow was adapting to them during the biggest armed conflict in Europe since World War Two. “The faster and better this task is accomplished, the closer we will be to defeating the aggression of the Russian Federation.”
Determined to make progress before Ukraine receives newly promised Western battle tanks and armoured vehicles, Russia has announced advances north and south of Bakhmut.
Russian forces are pushing from both the north and south to encircle Bakhmut, using superior troop numbers to try to cut it off, Ukrainian military analyst Yevhen Dikiy said.
“The enemy is able to use its sole resource, which it has in excess – its men,” Dikiy told Espreso TV, describing a landscape to the northeast of Bakhmut “literally covered with corpses”.
Ukraine and its Western allies say Moscow has taken huge losses around Bakhmut, sending in waves of poorly equipped troops, including thousands of recruits from prisons.
“We’re both firing with everything we have,” said a Belarusian volunteer fighting for Ukraine inside Bakhmut.
A former commander of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group who fled to Norway told Reuters he regretted fighting in Ukraine and was speaking out to bring perpetrators of atrocities to justice. “Although I don’t know how it would be received, I want to say I’m sorry,” said 26-year-old Andrei Medvedev.
He said he witnessed two people who did not want to fight being shot dead in front of newly-enrolled ex-convicts.
Ukraine has secured pledges of weapons from the West offering new capabilities – the latest expected this week to include rockets from the United States that would nearly double the range of Ukrainian forces.
“We’re focused on providing Ukraine the capability that it needs to be effective in its upcoming anticipated counter- offensive in the spring,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said.
The new weaponry would put all of Russia’s supply lines in eastern Ukraine, as well as parts of Crimea, seized from Ukraine and annexed by Russia in 2014, within range of Ukrainian forces.
Moscow says such rockets will escalate the conflict but not change its course. It too says its arms supplies will increase.
“The greater the range of the weapons supplied to the Kyiv regime the more we will have to push them back from territories which are part of our country,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Russian state TV.
Moscow claims to have annexed four Ukrainian provinces last year, in addition to Crimea.
The war has spilled into the sporting arena, with a growing chorus of calls to have athletes from Russia and its ally Belarus blocked from the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
“Any effort by the International Olympic Committee to bring back Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete, even under a neutral flag, should be rejected,” sports ministers from Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Poland said in a statement.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Himani Sarkar, Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Robert Birsel, Peter Graff and Mark Heinrich)