A Ukrainian victory over Vladimir Putin’s army in the looming battle in the Donbas is “quite likely”, Britain said on Tuesday.
Armed forces minister James Heappey stressed that Ukrainian forces had already defeated “some of Russia’s best regiments and battalions” so the next wave of attacks would come from less well trained troops.
He also warned allies in the West against “rushing to trade away Ukrainian territory” to strike a deal with Mr Putin to end the war, stressing these decisions should be left to the government in Kyiv alone.
“The Ukrainians have got the wind on their back right now,” he told Times Radio.
“They have seen off the initial advances.
“In doing so, they have defeated some of Russia’s best regiments and battalions.
“The next wave of Russian troops that come at them in the Donbas will not therefore be Russia’s best.
“They won’t be equipped with the best of Russia’s equipment.”
He stressed that while Russia may have more troops, he believed that the two sides were “very well matched”, with Ukrainian soldiers “well dug in” in positions they have held for up to eight years.
“I don’t think a Russian victory in the east of Ukraine is inevitable, in fact I think it is quite likely it could be the other way around,” added Mr Heappey.
“Therefore nobody in the West should be rushing to trade away Ukrainian territory, that is something for president Zelensky, and president Zelensky alone.”
Russian troops have also suffered from low morale, difficulties with fuel, ammunition and food supplies, and command and control problems which Mr Putin’s generals are seeking to address.
Mr Heappey also praised the “amazing” 36th Marine Brigade of Ukrainian forces holding out in Mariupol.
He highlighted their determination to fight to the “last man” and “last bullet”.
Earlier, the Ministry of Defence’s latest intelligence briefing said: “Fighting in eastern Ukraine will intensify over the next two to three weeks as Russia continues to refocus its efforts there.
“Russian attacks remain focused on Ukrainian positions near Donetsk and Luhansk with further fighting around Kherson and Mykolaiv and a renewed push towards Kramatorsk.
“Russian forces continue to withdraw from Belarus in order to redeploy in support of operations in eastern Ukraine.”
In an early morning briefing on Tuesday from the conflict zone, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said that aside from trying to take control of Mariupol, Russian forces were also intent on capturing Popasna, a town more than two hours drive west of Luhansk, and were set to launch an offensive in the direction of Kurakhove, in the Donetsk region.
The Ukrainian military said its troops had repulsed attacks in both the Luhansk and Donetsk regions, destroying four tanks, five armoured vehicles, 26 vehicles and eight enemy artillery systems. It also said its forces had downed a Russian plane, two helicopters and four drones.
These claims could not be confirmed independently.
As the Russian forces redeployed to the Donbas, which include areas of Donetsk and Luhansk controlled by Moscow-backed separatists, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for more weapons from the West to help it end the siege of Mariupol and fend off the expected Russian offensive in the east, as more reports emerged of rape and brutality against Ukrainian civilians by Mr Putin’s forces.
In a televised address late on Monday, he said: “When it comes on the necessary weapons, we still depend on supplies, on our partners. Unfortunately we are not getting as much as we need to end this war faster ... In particular, to lift the blockade of Mariupol.”