In Bakhmut and Kherson, Ukrainian forces advance against Russian fighters

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Ukrainian forces continued their offensive against the Russian military in the southern Kherson region on Tuesday, pushed Russian mercenaries out of Bakhmut in eastern Donetsk and gained new momentum in Luhansk, where they seized a key highway between the towns of Kremina and Svatovo.

In a day of heavy fighting and fast-moving events in multiple battle zones, the Ukrainians appeared to extend their recent successes in recapturing occupied territory and pushing Moscow’s troops back into areas that President Vladimir Putin claims now belong to Russia.

Away from the battlefield, the Kremlin has continued to push an allegation, made repeatedly without evidence, that Kyiv is preparing to use a “dirty bomb,” a weapon that combines conventional explosives with radioactive material — a charge that has been rejected by the United States and other Western nations.

US officials said Moscow’s claims raised the risk that Russia itself might be planning to launch a radiation attack, potentially as a pretext to justify further escalation of the war amid ongoing territorial setbacks.

In a statement on Tuesday, Ukraine’s nuclear power operator Energoatom issued a similar warning, citing the Russian military’s control of the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant at Enerhodar. “Energoatom suggests that such actions by the occupiers may indicate that they are preparing a terrorist act using nuclear materials and radioactive waste stored at the NPP site,” the statement said.

Renewed fears of some kind of radiation attack have added to the ominous sense that Putin’s war in Ukraine is becoming even more deadly and dangerous as each side seeks to redraw the facts on the ground before winter.

Ukraine is pushing hard for further territorial gains, while Russia this month launched a relentless bombing campaign against Ukraine’s energy system, using missiles and attack drones in an apparent attempt to plunge the country into cold and darkness and potentially offset battlefield losses.

Failures in its invasion of Ukraine have led to an increase in Russian nuclear threats, mirroring Cold War events such as the little-known nuclear crisis of 1983. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

As Ukraine continued to make gains, pro-Kremlin military bloggers and analysts confirmed new setbacks for Russian forces on Tuesday, including in Luhansk, Ukraine’s easternmost occupied region where Russia has had its strongest grip.

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“The Ukrainian army has resumed its counteroffensive in the direction of Luhansk,” the pro-Russian WarGonzo project said in its daily military update, adding that Ukrainian forces had taken control of a key highway between the Luhansk cities of Svatovo and Kremina.

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“Russian artillery is actively working on the left bank of the Zerebets River and is trying to stop the transfer of reinforcements to the enemy, but the situation is very difficult,” said WarGonzo.

In the Donetsk region, Wagner’s paramilitary forces, controlled by St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, appeared to have been pushed out of Bakhmut, where the mercenaries had spent weeks ravaging the city but making little gains. Military experts said the capture of Bakhmut had little strategic value, but Prigozhin appeared to see a chance to claim a political prize as regular Russian military units lost ground in other combat zones.

Ukrainian forces have seized a concrete plant on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said on Monday. On Sunday, Prigogine acknowledged the slow pace of Wagner’s efforts, saying the mercenaries were gaining only “100-200 meters a day.”

“Our units are constantly encountering the fiercest resistance of the enemy, and I note that the enemy is well prepared, motivated and working confidently and harmoniously,” Prigozhin said in a statement released by the press office of his catering company. “It’s not stopping our fighters from moving forward, but I can’t comment on how long it will take.”

In the southern Kherson region, one of four that Moscow claims to have annexed, Russian forces appear to be preparing to defend the city of Kherson, amid speculation they will pull back to the east side of the Dnieper river, ceding crucial territory.

Residents displaced from Russian-occupied Kherson, Ukraine, arrived by bus in Dzhankoy, Crimea, on 24 October. (Video: Reuters, Photo: Reuters/Reuters)

The Ukrainian military said in its operational briefing on Tuesday that Russian troops were establishing “defensive positions” along the east bank of the Dnieper and leaving small passages for a potential retreat from the west bank.

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Speculation about whether Moscow is preparing to leave Kherson has been circulating for weeks after Ukrainian forces made a permanent breakthrough in the southern direction.

“I don’t know all the nuances and plans of the command, but I do not rule out the surrender of Kherson, since from a military point of view its defense at the moment can turn into a rout,” a popular Russian military blogger who writes under the pseudonym Zapisky Veterana wrote in a post in Telegram. “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 have no choice. “The Russian position in the upper part of the Kherson region is probably untenable,” the Institute for the Study of War said.

Kremlin-appointed officials are forcing residents to evacuate the west bank of the Dnieper while claiming without evidence that Kyiv is preparing attacks on the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant, as well as “dirty bomb” allegations.

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The United States, France and Britain have accused Moscow of using the dirty bomb allegations as a pretext for escalation, and they have warned that Putin’s government will face further punitive action from the West.

On Tuesday, the Kremlin called Washington’s distrust of Russia’s claims “an unacceptable and frivolous approach.”

After a two-week bombardment in which Moscow systematically attacked 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 advanced air defense systems, needed to repel Russian airstrikes.

The country is also facing an urgent financial crisis, with officials raising questions about how Ukraine will secure funding to keep services running in the brutal weeks and months ahead. An early October World Bank forecast suggested Ukraine’s economy would shrink by 35 percent this year.

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On Tuesday, Germany and the European Union hosted a conference in Berlin on reconstruction, although the talk seemed particularly premature given the Russian attacks, which are causing new destruction every day.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine needs about $38 billion in emergency economic aid for next year alone. But while senior officials regularly trumpet EU support for Ukraine, there are questions about the short- and long-term follow-up.

Even as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen touted plans to help Ukraine through 2023, for example, EU officials acknowledged delays in providing Kyiv with some $9 billion in loans promised earlier this year.

US Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has pressed her European counterparts in recent weeks to increase financial aid to Kyiv and indirectly questioned the decision to offer loans rather than grants.

“We call on our partners and allies to join us by quickly repaying their existing commitments to Ukraine and by stepping up their efforts,” 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 provide much-needed economic aid quickly enough.

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“Thank you for the funds that have already been allocated,” Zelensky said. “But no decision has yet been made on the remaining $6 billion of this package – which is desperately needed this year.”

“It is within your power to reach an agreement in principle to provide this assistance to our country today,” he continued.

With existing needs unmet, some wonder how seriously to take the EU’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 “pledge segment.” Instead, the goal is “to emphasize that the international community is united and resolute in its support for Ukraine.”

In private conversations, some EU diplomats have raised questions about whether the bloc should devote resources to rebuilding a country still at war, especially given Europe’s own energy and economic crisis.

As von der Leyen spoke in Berlin on Tuesday, the focus in Brussels was largely on efforts to find common ground among the EU’s own member states on emergency energy measures.

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