In Bakhmut and Kherson, Ukrainian forces advance against Russian fighters

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Ukrainian forces continued their advance against the Russian army in the southern Kherson region on Tuesday, pushing back Russian mercenaries from Bakhmut in eastern Donetsk and gaining new momentum in Luhansk, where they seized a key highway between the towns of Kremina and Svatove.

On a day of heavy fighting and rapid developments across multiple combat zones, the Ukrainians appeared to extend their recent successes in retaking occupied territories 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 the claim, repeatedly asserted 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 allegations raised the risk that Russia itself was planning a radiation attack, potentially as a pretext to justify further escalation of the war amid its continued territorial retreat.

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

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

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

Failures in its invasion of Ukraine led to increased nuclear threats by Russia, echoing Cold War events such as the little-known nuclear crisis of 1983. (Video: Joshua Carroll/Washington Post)

As Ukraine continued to make gains, pro-Kremlin military bloggers and analysts confirmed new setbacks for Russian forces on Tuesday, including in Lugansk, Ukraine’s easternmost occupied region where Russia has the tightest control.

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

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

In the Donetsk region, Wagner’s paramilitary forces, controlled by St. Petersburg businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, appeared to be retreating from Bakhmut, where mercenaries had spent weeks pounding the city but making little progress. Military experts have said there is little strategic value in capturing Bakhmut, but Prigozhin appears to see a chance to win a political prize as regular Russian military units lose ground in other combat zones.

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

“Our units are constantly meeting the fiercest enemy resistance, and I note that the enemy is well prepared, motivated and working confidently and harmoniously,” Prigozhin said in a statement released by the press service of his catering company. “This does not stop our fighters from going forward, but I cannot comment on how long it will take.”

In the southern Kherson region, one of four claimed by Moscow to have annexed, Russian forces appeared to be preparing to defend the city of Kherson amid speculation they would pull back to the east side of the Dnieper river, ceding key ground.

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

The Ukrainian military said on Tuesday that Russian troops were setting up “defensive positions” along the east bank of the Dnieper and leaving small passages for a potential withdrawal from the west bank.

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Speculation about whether Moscow is preparing to abandon Kherson has been swirling for weeks after Ukrainian forces made a sustained 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, because from a military point of view, its defense at the moment can turn into a defeat,” a popular Russian military blogger. who writes under the name Zapiski veterana, wrote in a post on 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 has been here for a long time.”

Moscow may have no choice. “The Russian position in the upper part of the Kherson region is, however, probably untenable,” the Institute for the Study of War said.

Officials installed by the Kremlin forced residents to evacuate the west bank of the Dnieper, while claiming without evidence that Kyiv was preparing attacks on the Kakhovka hydroelectric plant, as well as allegations of a “dirty bomb”.

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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 warned that Putin’s government would face further punitive measures from the West.

On Tuesday, the Kremlin called Washington’s disbelief in Russia’s claims an “impermissible and frivolous approach.”

After a two-week bombing campaign in which Moscow systematically targeted energy infrastructure, Kyiv is increasingly concerned about civilians enduring the bitter winter. Ukrainian officials have spent the past few weeks pressing European officials for more sophisticated weapons, particularly the advanced air defense systems needed to repel Russian airstrikes.

The country is also facing an immediate cash crunch, with officials raising questions about how Ukraine will secure funding to maintain services during the brutal weeks and months ahead. A World Bank projection in early October 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, though the talk seemed particularly premature given the Russian attacks that bring fresh destruction every day.

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

Even as European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen touted plans to help Ukraine until 2023, for example, EU officials have acknowledged a delay in delivering some $9 billion in loans to Kyiv pledged earlier this year.

US Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen has pressed her European counterparts in recent weeks to step up financial aid to Kyiv and indirectly questioned the decision to offer loans instead of grants.

“We call on our partners and allies to join us by quickly paying off their existing commitments to Ukraine and by stepping up to do more,” Yellen said this month. In a video address to the European Council summit in Brussels last week, Zelensky called out European leaders for failing to deliver 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 critically needed this year.”

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

With existing needs unmet, some are questioning how seriously to take the EU’s promises of a Marshall Plan-scale effort. 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 “underline that the international community is united and resolute in its support for Ukraine.”

In private talks, some EU diplomats have raised questions about whether the bloc should allocate resources to rebuilding a country still very much at war, especially given Europe’s energy and economic crises.

As von der Leyen spoke in Berlin on Tuesday, the focus in Brussels was very much on efforts to find common ground among EU member states themselves on emergency energy measures.

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