Kyiv, Ukraine – Ukraine said on Tuesday its troops were under pressure in the near-destroyed frontline city of Bakhmut, where Russian forces were launching heavy assaults after months of fighting.
The former eastern industrial hub has become largely a political objective since the longest battle in Russia’s year-long invasion has already reduced it to rubble, causing high casualties on both sides.
As combat raged, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said the priority for Ukraine was to fight off Russia’s invasion with allies’ backing and that in the ‘long-term’ the nation would join the alliance.
AFP aerial footage shows almost all of Bakhmut’s buildings in ruins and smoke rising over the city once known for its sparkling wine production and salt mines.
The governor of the eastern Donetsk region Pavlo Kyrylenko said mid-February that out of the 70,000 people who lived in the city before the war, less than 5,000 civilians including 140 children remained.
“The situation around Bakhmut is extremely tense,” the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces Oleksandr Syrskyi said on social media.
“Despite taking significant losses, the enemy has dispatched its best-trained Wagner assault units to try to break through the defences of our troops and surround the city,” Syrskyi said, referring to the Russian paramilitary group.
‘Most likely fall’
Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut told AFP that Russian soldiers were launching fierce assaults.
“I think Bakhmut will most likely fall,” said a Ukrainian soldier with the call sign ‘Fox’, acknowledging that the opposing forces are making progress.
“They say (Russians soldiers) are idiots, drug addicts,” the 40-year-old said.
“But they have smart people there, people who know how to fight… They think, they learn, the same way we do.”
Ukraine has vowed to hold on, with President Volodymyr Zelensky visiting the devastated city in December.
Zelensky has said Ukraine would fight for the fortress city as long as it can, and has for months urged weapons deliveries from allies to help Ukraine take back territory lost in the Donetsk region.
The war is taking place on Ukraine’s soil but on Tuesday Russia said its forces downed two Ukrainian drones that targeted civilian infrastructure in the nation’s south, the latest in a series of drone incidents inside Russia that Moscow blamed on Kyiv.
Ukraine has been faced by Russian troops determined to seize Bakhmut, whose symbolic importance now outstrips its military significance.
In particular, the Wagner group, a once-shadowy force founded by Kremlin-linked businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin, has taken centre stage in the fight for Bakhmut.
Rivalry between Wagner and the regular Russian army has come to the surface, with Prigozhin last week issuing an unprecedented call to Russians to take his side and urging the defence ministry to share ammunition with his fighters.
Prigozhin has maintained his fighters have been leading the offensive in the area and personally claimed the capture of several villages around Bakhmut in recent days.
Prigozhin said on Saturday that his fighters had seized Yagidne, north of Bakhmut, in a post on social media showing masked armed men holding a Wagner flag in front of the village’s road sign.
This followed his announcement last week of capturing two villages north of Bakhmut, Berkhivka and Paraskoviivka.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Russian troops may be adapting its tactics to copy Wagner’s strategy.
“The tactics of the assault detachment additionally suggest that the Russian military may be attempting to institutionalise tactics used to marginal tactical effect by the Wagner Group in Bakhmut.”