By Pavel Polityuk
KYIV (Reuters) -Russian forces pounded frontline cities in eastern Ukraine with air strikes and artillery attacks, while U.S. officials stepped up efforts to locate the source of a leak of classified U.S. documents, including those on Ukrainian counter-offensive plans.
The Russians pressed on with their offensive in the eastern Donetsk region where several cities and towns came under heavy bombardment, Ukraine’s general staff said on Tuesday.
Ukrainian forces repelled several attacks, it said, as the Russian military kept up its effort to take control of Bakhmut.
A top Ukrainian commander accused Moscow of using “scorched earth” tactics.
“The enemy switched to so-called scorched earth tactics from Syria. It is destroying buildings and positions with air strikes and artillery fire,” Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said of Bakhmut.
The battle for the small and now largely ruined city on the edge of a chunk of Russian-controlled territory in Donetsk has been the bloodiest of the 13-month war as Moscow tries to inject momentum into its campaign after recent setbacks.
Both sides have suffered heavy casualties in the Bakhmut fighting, but Syrskyi said: “The situation is difficult but controllable.”
The head of the Moscow-controlled part of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said Russian forces now held 75% of the city, though he cautioned it was too early to talk about Bakhmut’s fall.
Moscow’s military was also targeting the city of Avdiivka.
“The Russians have turned Avdiivka into a total ruin,” said Pavlo Kyrylenko, Donetsk’s regional governor, describing an air strike on Monday that destroyed a multi-storey building.
“In total, around 1,800 people remain in Avdiivka, all of whom risk their lives every day.”
In Chasiv Yar, the first major town to Bakhmut’s west, few buildings remain intact and those queuing for food and other aid do not even flinch at the sound of artillery.
“It used to be scarier, but now we have got used to it,” said 50-year-old humanitarian volunteer Maksym. “You don’t even pay attention,” he added, his words nearly drowned out by the sound of explosions.
As the battles ground on, U.S. broadcaster CNN said Ukraine was forced to amend some military plans ahead of its long-anticipated counter-offensive because of the leak of dozens of secret documents.
U.S. officials are trying to trace the source of the leak, reviewing how they share secrets internally and dealing with the diplomatic fallout.
The documents detail topics such as information on the Ukraine conflict, in which Washington has supplied Kyiv with huge amounts of weapons and led international condemnation of Moscow’s invasion.
Asked about the report, Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhailo Podolyak said Kyiv’s strategic plans remained unchanged but that specific tactics were always subject to change.
Some national security experts and U.S. officials have said they suspect the leaker could be American, but have not ruled out pro-Russian actors.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov declined to comment on the leak, but said: “There is in fact a tendency to always blame everything on Russia. It is, in general, a disease.”
HOT ON THE EASTERN FRONT
A Ukrainian counter-offensive has long been expected after months of attritional warfare in the east.
A Russian winter offensive failed to make much progress, and its troops have made only small advances at huge cost.
The Ukrainian defenders have also taken heavy casualties.
Syrskyi said Moscow was sending in special forces and airborne units to help their attack on Bakhmut as members of Russia’s private mercenary Wagner group, who have spearheaded the Bakhmut assault, were exhausted.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield accounts.
Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces had made unsuccessful advances on areas west of Bakhmut while shelling many towns and villages, including Bakhmut and Chasiv Yar.
Ukrainian forces repelled 52 enemy attacks, it said.
Donetsk is one of four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine that Russia declared annexed last year and is seeking to fully occupy in what appears to be a shift in its war aims after failing to overrun the country after its February 2022 invasion.
Control of Bakhmut could allow Russia to directly target Ukrainian defensive lines in Chasiv Yar and open the way for its forces to advance on two bigger cities in the Donetsk region – Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Last week, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said troops could be withdrawn if they ran the risk of being encircled. Kyiv and the West say the now smashed city of Bakhmut has only symbolic importance.
(Additional reporting by Ron Popeski, Nick Starko and Tom Balmforth; Writing by Angus MacSwan, Andrew Cawthorne, Arshad Mohammed and Shri Navaratnam; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Clarence Fernandez)