The Israel-Gaza war is “taking away the focus” from the conflict in Ukraine, the country’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has admitted.
He said this was “one of the goals” of Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
And he denied that fighting in Ukraine had reached a stalemate, despite a recent assessment to this effect by the country’s top military general.
Ukraine’s counter-offensive in the south has so far made little headway, prompting fears of war fatigue among Kyiv’s Western allies
with suggestions of growing reluctance in some capitals to continue giving Ukraine advanced weapons and funds.
In a separate development on Saturday, Ukrainian Defence Minister Rustem Umerov confirmed that Ukrainian soldiers from 128th Mountain Assault Brigade “Zakarpattia (Transcarpathia)” were killed, ordering a “full investigation in what he described as a “tragedy”.
He did not say how many soldiers died in what Ukraine’s military said was a Russian missile strike in the southern Zaporizhzhia region on Friday.
Reports in Ukrainian media and among Russian military bloggers earlier said more than 20 Ukrainian service personnel were killed during an award ceremony in a village close to the front lines.
Ukraine’s military also said that on Saturday it successfully hit “sea and port infrastructure” of a shipbuilding plant in Crimea – Ukraine’s southern peninsula illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.
Russia’s defence ministry was later quoted by the country’s state-run news agencies as saying that 13 out of 15 Ukrainian missiles fired on the plant in the city of Kerch, eastern Crimea, were shot down, but a Russian ship was damaged.
Speaking at Saturday’s briefing in Kyiv with visiting European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Mr Zelensky said: “It’s clear that the war in the Middle East is taking away the focus” from Ukraine.
He said Russia wanted this focus to be “weakened”, but stressed that “everything is in our powers”.
Mr Zelensky was also asked to comment on this week’s assessment by Ukraine’s chief military commander Valery Zaluzhny that the war was now moving to a “positional” or static stage, and this would benefit Moscow by “allowing it to rebuild its military power”.
“Everyone is getting tired and there are different opinions,” Mr Zelensky replied, adding: “But this is not a stalemate.”
He admitted that Russia was “controlling the skies” and that Ukraine urgently needed US-made F-16 warplanes and advanced anti-aircraft defences to change the situation.
The Ukrainian leader recalled that last year, there had also been a lot of talk about a stalemate on the vast battlefield in Ukraine – but he pointed to Kyiv’s subsequent major military victories in the north-eastern Kharkiv region and Kherson in the south.
Mr Zelensky also rejected media reports that he was coming under growing pressure to consider negotiations with Russia.
“Today, no-one among EU, US leaders and others – our partners – is putting pressure for us to now sit down to negotiate with Russia, and give away something to it. This will not happen.”
Moscow on Thursday also commented on Mr Zaluzhny’s assessment, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman saying the current battlefield situation was not a “stalemate”.
“All the [war] goals that were set must be achieved,” Dmitry Peskov said, adding that Ukraine must realise that “even talking about any prospects for the Kyiv regime’s victory on the battlefield is absurd”.
President Putin has repeatedly claimed that Ukraine’s counter-offensive had failed, while his Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said this week that Kyiv was losing the war despite supplies of new weapons from Nato allies.
Meanwhile, the UK defence intelligence said in its latest report on Saturday that Russia “has likely lost around 200 armoured vehicles during its assaults on the Donbas town of Avdiivka” in eastern Ukraine.
“It is plausible that Russia has suffered several thousand personnel casualties around the town since the start of October 2023.
“Russia’s leadership continues to demonstrate a willingness to accept heavy personnel losses for marginal territorial gains,” the report said.
Moscow has in recent weeks been trying to advance in eastern and north-eastern Ukraine – but Ukraine’s military says all the attacks have been rebuffed.
The claims by the two warring sides have not been independently verified.