NEAR MARINKA, Ukraine: Ukraine said on Tuesday the last 24 hours were the deadliest of the war so far for Russian forces as Moscow pressed on with an intensifying winter assault in the east, bringing tens of thousands of freshly mobilised troops to the battlefield.
The Ukrainian claim of more than 1,000 Russian troops killed over a day could not be independently verified, and Russia has also claimed to have killed large numbers of Ukrainian troops in recent weeks.
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius visited Kyiv on Tuesday as Berlin, Denmark, and the Netherlands said they would pool funds to restore Leopard 1 tanks from industry stocks and supply them to Kyiv in the coming months.
Pistorius announced the supply of about 80 Leopard 1s this year and about 100 in 2024, more than previously announced. German Vice Chancellor Robert Halbeck said separately on a visit to Washington that he expected Ukraine to have a double-digit number of Leopard 1 tanks by March but he was not sure how many of the 178 tanks authorized would be sent in total.
Since the New Year, Western countries have pledged hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles to Ukraine to give it the firepower and mobility to push through Russian lines and recapture territory later this year.
A new U.S. package of weapons is expected to include longer-range rockets, which would give Ukraine the ability to hit Russian supply lines in all of the territory it occupies in Ukraine's mainland and parts of the Crimea Peninsula.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter he spoke on Tuesday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken about new military aid, sanctions on Russia and "the preparations of important events" as Russia's invasion nears its one-year anniversary on Feb. 24.
But it will take months before new weapons arrive, and meanwhile Russia has replenished its manpower by calling up reservists. The Kremlin says Western supplies of arms only widen and extend the conflict.
"The U.S. and its allies are trying to prolong the conflict as much as possible," Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday in a conference call with military officials.
"To do this, they have started supplying heavy offensive weapons, openly urging Ukraine to seize our territories. In fact, such steps are dragging NATO countries into the conflict and could lead to an unpredictable level of escalation."
His use of the phrase "our territories" appeared to refer to four Ukrainian provinces Russia claimed to have annexed last year, as well as Crimea, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Separately, Russia demanded that the U.S. embassy in Moscow stop spreading what Moscow regards as fake news about the military operation in Ukraine and has threatened to expel U.S. diplomats, the TASS news agency reported on Tuesday.
The Ukrainian military increased its running tally of Russian military dead by 1,030 overnight to 133,190, describing the increase as the highest of the war so far and among 1,900 over two days. For its part, Russia said it had inflicted 6,500 Ukrainian casualties in the month of January.
Although tallies of enemy casualties from either side have typically been seen as unreliable, and Kyiv offered few details of the latest battles, Ukraine's assertion that the fighting was the deadliest day so far for Russian troops fits descriptions from both sides of escalating close-contact trench warfare.
Close to the town of Marinka, some 30 km (18.6 miles) from the eastern city of Donetsk, a marine unit of Ukraine's armed forces fired rockets on Russian positions from a Soviet-era launch system. Soldiers said Russians had changed tactics since arriving in vehicle columns at the start of the invasion.
"They storm in small infantry groups, trying to creep in further and further," said a soldier who gave his name only as Ievhen. "The enemy adapted quite well, they learn as fast as we do. They adopted different kinds of tactics," he added.
Kyiv and the West say Russia has been pouring troops and mercenaries into eastern Ukraine in recent weeks in hopes of being able to claim new gains by Feb. 24.
The war is entering its second year at a pivotal juncture, with Moscow trying to regain the initiative while Kyiv holds out for Western tanks to mount a counter-offensive later in 2023.
After Russia failed to capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv last year and lost ground in the second half of 2022, Moscow is now making full use of hundreds of thousands of troops it called up in its first mobilisation since World War Two.
The last few weeks have seen Russia boast of its first gains for half a year. But the progress has still been incremental, with Moscow yet to capture a single major population centre in its winter campaign despite thousands of dead.
Fighting has focused for months around Ukrainian-held Bakhmut in eastern Donetsk province, a city with a pre-war population of around 75,000. Russia has made clear progress towards encircling it from both the north and south, but Kyiv says its garrison is holding fast.
Moscow has also launched an assault further south against Vuhledar, a Ukrainian-controlled bastion also in Donetsk province on high ground at the strategic intersection between the eastern and southern front lines.
Ukraine's national security chief Oleksiy Danilov said Russia is expected to include the northeastern Kharkiv or southern Zaporizhia regions as targets of an anticipated offensive.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Max Hunder, Ron Popeski, Nick Starkov and Lidia Kelly; Writing by Peter Graff, Alexandra Hudson and Cynthia Osterman; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Mark Heinrich and Daniel Wallis)