Outgunned Ukrainian forces locked in 'fierce battles' against Putin's advancing army, says Zelensky

Vladimir Putin has appointed an economist as his new defence minister which was seen as signalling he plans for a long war in Ukraine (via REUTERS)

Outgunned and outnumbered Ukrainian forces are locked in “fierce battles” against the advancing Russian army in two border areas, says Volodymyr Zelensky.

Ukraine’s president stressed that intense fighting was taking place near the border in eastern and north-eastern Ukraine as Ukrainian soldiers try to push back a significant Russian ground offensive.

"Defensive battles are ongoing, fierce battles, on a large part of our border area," he said in his nightly video address.

The Kremlin's forces are aiming to exploit Ukrainian weaknesses before a big batch of new military aid for Kyiv from the US and European partners arrives on the battlefield in the coming weeks and months, analysts say.

That makes this period a window of opportunity for Moscow and one of the most dangerous for Kyiv in the two-year war, they say.

Russian commanders are also using new tactics, such as sending troops on off-road motorbikes and all-terrrain vehicles, to the frontline and to carry out night attacks.

The new Russian push in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, along with the ongoing drive into the eastern Donetsk region, comes after months when the 620-mile front line barely budged.

In the meantime, both sides have used long-range strikes in what largely became a war of attrition.

The Kharkiv incursion may be an attempt to create a "buffer zone" to protect Belgorod, an adjacent Russian border region battered by Ukrainian attacks.

Russian emergency services on Monday finished clearing the rubble in the region's capital city of Belgorod, where a section of a residential building collapsed following what authorities said was Ukrainian shelling.

Fifteen bodies were pulled from the rubble, Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said, and 27 other people were wounded.

Another three people in the city of Belgorod were killed by shelling late on Sunday, he said.

Meanwhile, Putin was accused by Britain of putting another “puppet” in as defence minister as he moved to appoint an economist to the role in a sign that he is planning for a long war in Ukraine.

The Russian president caught military experts by surprise with his plan to bring in Andrei Belousov, a 65-year-old former deputy prime minister who specialises in economics, to replace his long-term ally, Sergei Shoigu, 68, as defence minister.

In London, the UK’s Defence Secretary Grant Shapps tweeted: “Sergei Shoigu has overseen over 355,000 casualties amongst his own soldiers & mass civilian suffering with an illegal campaign in Ukraine.

“Russia needs a Defence Minister who would undo that disastrous legacy & end the invasion - but all they’ll get is another of Putin’s puppets.”

The appointment of Belousov was being seen as an admission that Russia forces were not going to quickly win the war in Ukraine and instead aimed to dig in for an economic war, in the hope that the West will eventually tire in its support for Kyiv.

Putin wants Shoigu, in charge of defence since 2012 and a long-standing friend and ally, to become the secretary of Russia’s powerful Security Council, replacing incumbent Nikolai Patrushev, and to also have responsibilities for the military-industrial complex, the Kremlin said.

Patrushev will get a new, as yet unannounced, job.

The changes, certain to be approved by parliamentarians, are the most significant Putin has made to the military command since sending tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine in February 2022 in what he called a special military operation.

His invasion swiftly floundered as his forces failed to seize Kyiv within days as planned.

They were then forced to retreat to eastern Ukraine where the conflict has been bogged down, with Russian units making limited gains but suffering heavy losses.

A delay in supplying more weapons from the West, mainly by the US, has allowed Putin’s army to gain the upperhand in recent months.

But Ukrainian forces are expected to get new military equipment within weeks to thwart Russian advances.

The first F-16 fighter jets being supplied by the West are expected to arrive by June or July.

The conflict has also seen the increased use of drones, including long-range attacks by both sides.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the changes in Putin’s top team made sense because Russia was approaching a situation like the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, when the military and law enforcement authorities accounted for 7.4 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP).

That, said Peskov, meant it was vital to ensure such spending aligned with and was better integrated into the country’s overall economy, which was why Putin now wanted a civilian economist in the defence ministry job.

“The one who is more open to innovations is the one who will be victorious on the battlefield,” Peskov said.

Belousov, a former economy minister known to be very close to Putin, shares the Russian leader’s vision of rebuilding a strong state, and has also worked with Putin’s senior technocrats who want greater innovation and are open to new ideas.

Belousov has played an important role in overseeing Russia’s drone programme.

The shake-up, which caught the elite off-guard, indicates Putin is doubling down on the Ukraine war and wants to harness more of Russia’s economy for the war after the West sought, but failed so far, to sink the economy with sanctions.