Russian forces are relentless in their attempts to capture the bombed-out eastern Ukrainian towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka but were not making progress, Ukraine's military said on Wednesday, but a pro-Moscow official said the Russians are advancing.
The two towns along with other communities in the industrial Donetsk region are at the epicentre of Russia's attacks, the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a statement.
"The enemy continues its assault on the city of Bakhmut. However, our defenders courageously hold the city, repel numerous enemy attacks," the General Staff said, adding that Ukrainian forces had fended off 57 Russian attacks on Bakhmut and other towns.
Britain's defence ministry said Russian forces had made only "marginal progress" in an attempt to encircle Avdiivka and had lost many armoured vehicles and tanks.
But Denis Pushilin, the Russian-installed leader of the part of Donetsk region under Moscow's control, said most Ukrainian forces had pulled back from a metals factory in western Bakhmut and Russian forces were making progress.
Reuters was not able to verify the battlefield accounts.
As advanced Western battle tanks began to arrive in Ukraine ahead of an anticipated counter-offensive by its forces, Russia's RIA news agency reported that Moscow had sent its troops hundreds of new and refurbished tanks.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who visited two northern towns and trenches near the Russian border on Tuesday, spoke in his nightly video address of the international response to Russia's February 2022 invasion of his country, saying it "reminds the world that Russian aggression could be ended considerably more quickly than is sometimes said".
RUSSIAN MISSILE EXERCISE
Away from the battlefields of the biggest land conflict in Europe since World War Two, Russian ally Belarus said its decision to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons was a response to Western sanctions and what it said was a military build-up by NATO member states near its borders.
U.S. President Joe Biden indicated he would be concerned by the decision although the United States said it had not seen any indications that Russia was closer to using tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
Russia had begun exercises with its Yars intercontinental ballistic missile system and several thousand troops, its defence ministry said, in what is likely to be seen as another attempt by Moscow to show off its nuclear strength.
Russia said on Tuesday it had shot down a U.S.-supplied GLSDB guided smart bomb fired by Ukrainian forces, the first time it has claimed to have intercepted one of the weapons that could double Ukraine's battlefield firing range.
The Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine is another flashpoint. The head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog is expected to visit the plant on Wednesday.
Rafael Grossi said in an interview with Reuters that his work on forging an agreement to protect Europe's largest nuclear power station was still alive.
Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of shelling the site.
Russian media cited a Moscow-installed official in Zaporizhzhia as saying Ukrainian forces had shelled the city of Melitopol, about 100 km (62 miles) southeast of the nuclear plant, hitting a locomotive depot but there were no reports of casualties.
INVITATION TO XI
Russia calls its invasion of Ukraine a "special military operation". The war has killed thousands of troops on both sides, tens of thousands of civilians and displaced millions.
The United States and other allies of Ukraine have provided it with weapons and money, describing the invasion as an imperial-style land grab by Russia.
On the diplomatic front, Zelenskiy told the Associated Press in an interview that he had extended an invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit.
Xi has not talked to Zelenskiy since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February last year but China published a 12-point plan for "a political resolution of the Ukraine crisis" last month.
the conflict with his "dear friend", Russian President Vladimir Putin, while on a state visit to Moscow last week.
China's proposal includes a call for a de-escalation and eventual ceasefire in Ukraine but the United States has been dismissive, given that China has declined to condemn Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, and Zelenskiy has said he will only consider peace settlements after Russian troops leave Ukrainian territory.
Separately, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk urged Russians not to adopt children who she said were "stolen" in Ukraine and deported to Russia, a potential war crime.
Russia has not concealed a programme under which it has brought thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, but presents it as a humanitarian campaign to protect orphans and children abandoned in the conflict zone.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; writing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel; editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)