WEST OF SOLEDAR, Ukraine (Reuters) -Ukrainian troops, on the defensive for four months, will launch a long-awaited counterassault "very soon" now that Russia's huge winter offensive is losing steam without taking Bakhmut, Ukraine's top ground forces commander said on Thursday.
The remarks were the strongest indication yet from Kyiv that it is close to shifting tactics, having absorbed Russia's onslaught through a brutal winter.
Russia's Wagner mercenaries "are losing considerable strength and are running out of steam", Kyiv's ground forces commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a social media post.
"Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we did in the past near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk," he said, listing Ukrainian counteroffensives last year that recaptured swathes of land.
There was no immediate response from Moscow to the latest suggestions its forces in Bakhmut were losing momentum, but Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has issued pessimistic statements in recent days warning of a Ukrainian counterassault.
On Monday, Prigozhin published a letter to Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, saying Ukraine aimed to cut off Wagner's forces from Russia's regular troops.
Reuters journalists near the front line north of Bakhmut saw signs consistent with the claim that the Russian offensive in the area could be flagging. At a Ukrainian-held village west of Soledar, on Bakhmut's northern outskirts, the intensity of the Russian bombardment had noticeably lessened compared with another visit nearby just two days earlier.
"It was really hot here a week ago, but in the last three days it has been more quiet," said a Ukrainian soldier who used the call sign "Kamin", or "Stone".
"We can see this in the enemy's air strikes. If before there were 5-6 air raids in a day, today we had only one helicopter attack and it was too far and so ineffective," said the soldier, a member of an anti-aircraft unit in the 10th Mountain Assault Brigade.
A slow-down in Russia's assault on Bakhmut could be in part a consequence of Moscow diverting its troops and resources to other areas. Britain said on Thursday that Russian troops had been making gains further north this month, partially regaining control over the approaches to the town of Kreminna, a Ukrainian target. Intense battles were also under way further south.
But any shift in momentum in Bakhmut, if confirmed, would be remarkable given the city's symbolic importance as the focus of Russia's offensive, and the scale of the losses on both sides there in Europe's bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged Europe to provide more weapons, faster to his forces and impose additional sanctions on Russia, warning the war could otherwise drag on for years.
"If Europe waits, the evil may have time to regroup and prepare for years of war. It is in your power to prevent this," a clearly frustrated Zelenskiy said in a video address to European Union leaders, delivered from a train.
In particular, he reiterated demands for long-range missiles, more ammunition and more modern aircraft, and said the EU needed to speed up the process to grant Ukraine membership.
Front lines have largely been frozen in place since Ukraine's last major offensive in November. Moscow has meanwhile sent hundreds of thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited by Wagner from prisons into battle.
Ukraine had looked likely to pull out of Bakhmut weeks ago but decided to fight on, a move some Western military experts described as a major risk given the need to preserve forces for a counterattack later this year.
But Ukrainian commanders said the battle was weakening Russia's forces more than their own.
ZELENSKIY VISITS FRONT LINE
Zelenskiy had earlier on Thursday continued a tour of frontline provinces, visiting the Kherson region in the south a day after meeting troops near Bakhmut. He posted a video showing him meeting residents in Posad Pokrovske, a bombed-out village on the former Kherson front line recaptured in Ukraine's last big advance last year.
"We will restore everything, we will rebuild everything. Just like with every city and village that suffered because of the occupiers," he wrote.
This week, President Vladimir Putin made his grandest diplomatic gesture since launching the war a year ago, hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Moscow for a three-day state visit. The two leaders pledged friendship and jointly denounced the West, but Xi barely mentioned the Ukraine war in public.
On Wednesday, the day Xi left, Moscow sent a swarm of drones to conduct air strikes across northern Ukraine and rockets hit two apartment blocks in Zaporizhzhia in the south.
The death toll rose on Thursday to nine from one of those attacks, a dormitory struck in a riverside town south of Kyiv.
Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year in what it calls a "special military operation", claiming Kyiv's ties to the West were a security threat. Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have been killed. Russia has destroyed Ukrainian cities and set millions of people to flight. It claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine.
Kyiv and the West call the war an unprovoked assault to subdue an independent country.
Last week, the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin on war crimes charges, accusing him of illegally deporting Ukrainian children. Moscow denies this and says it has taken in children to protect them.
Dmitry Medvedev, a Putin ally, said arresting Putin would amount to a declaration of war against Russia.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White west of Soledar, Pavel Polityuk in Kyiv and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff and Alex Richardson; Editing by Nick Macfie and Diane Craft)