Moscow announced Tuesday it had for the first time downed a long-range rocket supplied to Ukraine by the United States, weapons Kyiv said were key to an anticipated counter-attack against Russian forces.
The statement from Russia’s defense ministry came a day after Ukraine said it received modern Leopard and Challenger battle tanks from Germany and the UK to push back Moscow’s army in east and southern Ukraine.
Fighting in recent months between Russian and Ukrainian forces has concentrated on the eastern city Bakhmut, and Kyiv says it is holding out in the Donetsk region urban hub to exhaust Russian forces and then more easily push them back.
“Air defence (forces) downed… a GLSDB guided rocket,” Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement, referring to ground-launched small diameter bombs produced by Boeing and the Saab Group.
These devices have a range of up to 150 kilometers (93 miles), which would threaten Russian positions and supply depots far behind the front lines.
The Pentagon announced last month it was providing Ukraine with the artillery as part of a $2.2 billion arms package.
“This gives them a longer-range capability… that will enable them to conduct operations in defence of their country and to take back their sovereign territory,” Pentagon spokesman Pat Ryder said at the time.
Ukraine had been asking the United States for munitions that can fly farther than the HIMARS rockets, which have an 80-kilometer range.
The West had been wary of supplying the weapons over concerns Kyiv could use them to target Russia.
HIMARS played an important role in Ukraine’s recapture of Kherson in the south last year but the GLSDB potentially gives Ukraine forces the ability to strike anywhere in the Russian-held parts of Ukraine.
‘Wear Down’ Russian Forces at Bakhmut
That could threaten key Russian supply lines, arms depots, and air bases.
The Kremlin has consistently said that Western arms deliveries to Ukraine would ultimately not have any impact on the battlefield and only prolong the conflict and Ukrainians’ suffering.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky at the time tweeted his thanks to President Joe Biden for the new aid.
“The more long-range our weapons are and the more mobile our troops are the sooner Russia’s brutal aggression will end,” he said.
Thank you @POTUS for the new $2.2 billion defense aid package. It's important to strengthen the 🇺🇦 Defense Forces. Together with 🇺🇸 we stand against terror! The more long-range our weapons are and the more mobile our troops are the sooner Russia's brutal aggression will end.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) February 3, 2023
Russia’s key military objective of its invasion is the complete capture of the Donetsk region, which it already claimed to have annexed last year even as fighting there is ongoing.
The longest and bloodiest battle of the war so far is unfolding in Bakhmut, a largely emptied and destroyed salt mining town
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi said Tuesday that Russian forces were still working to encircle the city.
“Our main task is to wear down the masses of enemy forces and inflict heavy losses on them. This will make it possible to create the needed conditions to facilitate the liberation of Ukrainian land and speed up our victory,” he added.
A key concern for both sides is ammunition supplies. Both Russia and Kyiv are racing to shore up supplies with the EU vowing last week a 2 billion euro munitions package.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu meanwhile visited ammunition production facilities in central Russia, the ministry said, and praised work to increase production of shells for the armed forces in Ukraine.
“By the end of this year, the manufacture of individual units will increase by 7-8 times,” the ministry added in the statement.