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Ukraine’s Zelenskyy says Russia has the initiative in the east but new Western aid is on the way

POKROVSK, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Thursday his country’s army is facing “a really difficult situation” in eastern regions where troops are battling to hold at bay an intense Russian push along parts of the front line.

Russia has sought to exploit Ukraine’s shortages of ammunition and manpower as the flow of Western supplies since the outbreak of the war petered out, assembling large troop concentrations in the east as well as in the north and gaining an edge on the battlefield, Zelenskyy said.

But a massive new U.S. military aid package is coming, and it will turn the tide, he said at a news conference in Kyiv with visiting President of the European Parliament Roberta Metsola.

“With an increase in the supply of weapons, we will be able to stop them in the east. As of now, they seized the initiative there,” Zelenskyy said.

Russia is pressing hard in parts of eastern Ukraine in an effort to drive deeper into the Donetsk region, which it partly occupies. The Ukrainian army is on the back foot, scrambling to build fortified defensive lines, and engaged in intense combat.

Ukraine’s forces are outnumbered in infantry, armor and ammunition against Russia’s bigger army and are trying to limit the Kremlin’s forces to incremental gains.

A Ukrainian brigade recently deployed near Pokrovsk, a town of around 60,000 people before the war, to help stop the creeping Russian advance. Pokrovsk was until recently a two-hour drive from the front line. Now it is less than half that.

Soldiers said the Russians usually shelled Ukrainian positions around dawn before sending in waves of small infantry units. The attackers seek to gain footholds and quickly dig in to consolidate their limited advance.

“They constantly try to breach our lines with their personnel … to get through somewhere, to crawl in, to hold any positions for at least a minute,” said one soldier, who gave only his call sign “Prorok” in line with brigade protocols.

“But we are trying to inflict fire damage while they are still approaching our positions,” he told The Associated Press. “Once they reach our positions, our personnel inflict maximum damage on them with small arms fire.”

AP video from the area shows Ukrainian infantry bodycam footage of troops attacking through trees and thick undergrowth, aiming to deny the advancing Russians a foothold. Both attackers and defenders take advantage of tree lines for cover.

The Russian goal, according to Ukrainian intelligence, is to secure the battered small town of Ocheretyne and reach the main Pokrovsk-Kostiantynivka road, severing a key Ukrainian line of communication with other front-line towns.

Ocheretyne lies northwest of Avdiivka, a city whose capture opened a door for the Kremlin’s troops to push westward, deeper into Donetsk. Russia annexed Donetsk and three other regions illegally in 2022 shortly after it invaded Ukraine, and taking control of all of Donetsk is one of the Kremlin’s main war goals.

After Avdiivka’s fall at the end of February, Russia took other local villages as the country’s army chief warned of a worsening battlefield situation.

Russian troops have stepped up their efforts to advance in areas near Ocheretyne, launching 45 ground attacks over the previous 24 hours, Ukraine’s General Staff said Thursday. On most recent days, they have conducted 20-35 attacks a day.

Russian attacks in eastern Ukraine increased by 17% from March to April, the U.K. Defense Ministry said Thursday. Despite the attacking effort, the Kremlin’s forces have made only minor gains and sustained heavy losses, it added.

Near Marinka, one of Donetsk’s devastated towns, soldiers with Ukraine’s 148th separate artillery brigade fire an M777 howitzer toward Russian positions — and get little rest.

“Sometimes we sleep 5-6 hours a day in total, sometimes we get up and shoot every hour,” says one of the soldiers, whose call sign is “Odesa.”

Even so, the Russians keep coming. “They are advancing and every day, little by little, but successfully,” he says.

In other developments:

— Ukraine’s Parliament has approved a bill that offers parole for convicts who enlist for military service, as the country seeks to replenish its depleted ranks. The bill approved Wednesday covers only certain categories of convicts. It will be subject to further discussion in Parliament before going to the president who decides whether to sign it into law. Russia has also used prisoners to make up a manpower shortage.

— Meanwhile, Zelenskyy formally appointed Ukraine’s former army chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the country’s ambassador to Britain. Zelenskyy replaced Zaluzhnyi in February in an apparent effort to give new momentum to Ukraine’s fight.

— Also, the governor of Russia’s Bashkortostan region said a drone strike in the city of Salavat caused a fire at a petrochemical facility. Salavat lies about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) from the nearest point of the Ukraine border, making it possibly the deepest Ukrainian strike yet into Russia. Kyiv officials made no comment about the strike.

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Novikov reported from Kyiv, Ukraine.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine