(Reuters) – Russia said on Monday its troops had advanced several kilometers along the front lines in Ukraine, while Kiev said its forces had repelled Russian attacks in several areas.
As the first anniversary of the Russian invasion approaches, much of the fighting is taking place around the eastern city of Bakhmut, still in Ukrainian hands amid a months-long battle.
The Ukrainian military reported heavy Russian shelling along the front line on Monday and said that 16 settlements were bombed near Bakhmut.
Russia’s Defense Ministry reported that Russian troops were able to advance 2 km westward in four days. However, it did not say what part of the long front line, covering several Ukrainian regions in the south and east, they had moved into.
“The Russian military broke the enemy’s resistance and advanced several kilometers in its staggered defense,” it said.
Ukraine’s military said that the previous day its forces repelled a series of attacks near Bakhmut, which is in the Donetsk region, as well as attacks in the Kharkiv, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner Group, said on Sunday that the mercenary force had seized the village of Krasna Hora in the far north of Bakhmut. Wagner has been leading the attack on Bakhmut for months, making small but steady gains.
Bakhmut is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main targets, and months of Russian bombing have left much of it in ruins.
The Donetsk region is partly occupied by Russia and Moscow wants to occupy it fully. However, neither side makes a decisive gain for weeks.
The commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said on Saturday that Ukrainian troops have maintained their defense along the front line in Donetsk and in some areas have managed to regain previously lost positions.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the battlefield reports.
With Ukraine desperate for more weapons and ammunition to turn the tide of the war, defense ministers from several countries in the Western military alliance North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies Kiev are expected to meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss possible additional military aid.
Russia is believed to be planning a major new offensive and Ukraine says it needs fighter jets and long-range missiles to counter this and regain lost territory.
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 last year claiming that its neighbor posed a security threat. Kiev and the West say the action was nothing more than a land grab.
In Ukraine, the battle for Bakhmut reaches its turning point
(AFP) An ambulance speeds toward a care center for wounded Ukrainian soldiers on the outskirts of Bakhmut (east), site of the longest and bloodiest battle since the beginning of the Russian invasion.
Ivan, an ambulance driver, waits at the side of the road for more wounded to arrive as the fighting intensifies. The battlefield, littered with trenches and bombarded by artillery, reminds him of the First World War.
“It’s like Verdun,” he sighs, referring to the bloody World War I battle that lasted 10 months.
Like 1916 in eastern France, the battle of Bakhmut is extremely violent and deadly. Its outcome has become somewhat symbolic as the first anniversary of the war approaches on February 24.
Moscow wants its first significant victory after months of setbacks, but Kiev is determined to resist.
As both sides entrench themselves, the human cost among troops and civilians overshadows the strategic importance of this industrial city reduced to rubble in its eastern, northern and southern districts.
- All the time possible –
“It’s a classic World War I problem,” said Mark Cancian, an analyst at the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
After the failure of the first Russian attempts to encircle Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, Moscow “kept attacking,” even though victory “means nothing in military and strategic terms.”
“There is a lot of symbolism, so if they capture Bakhmut they will make it look like it is important, but it is not,” added the former Marine, who acknowledges that Ukrainian options are limited.
“If that is where the Russians attack, the Ukrainians have no choice but to defend the city,” he said.
According to British intelligence, the Russian advance has been halted, but the pressure continues. On Sunday, the Russian paramilitary group Wagner claimed to have taken Krasna Hora, which lies a few kilometers north of Bakhmut.
This explains Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky’s constant calls for countries to supply more weapons.
“If the supply of weapons accelerates, in particular long-range weapons, we will not only remain in Bakhmut, (but) we will begin to end the occupation of the Donbass,” he assured in early February at a meeting with European leaders in Kiev.
The army will defend Bakhmut “for as long as possible,” he insisted. But this battle is not only about high-precision weapons.
For Ukrainian military analyst Oleksandre Kovalenko, Kiev especially needs standard ammunition. “If they don’t arrive, we will have serious problems in Bakhmut,” he told AFP.
- “Russia’s huge advantage” –
On the ground, Ukrainian soldiers express the same need.
“The enemy has a huge advantage in terms of artillery,” Iuri Kryjbersky, a 37-year-old officer, told AFP.
“You can sit in a cave in Vassiukivka (a village north of Bakhmut) for half an hour and you will hear 40 shells go by,” he said.
The other Russian advantage is numbers, which impresses the Ukrainian sergeant identified by his war name Alkor: “We shoot, shoot and shoot, but after five minutes 20 more men come at us.”
Moscow and the Wagner group are accused of using ill-prepared recruits as “cannon fodder,” an allegation rejected by Russian military analyst Alexander Khramchikhin, who calls it “Western propaganda.”
But Kiev also suffers heavy losses. Major Volodimir Leonov of the Ukrainian territorial defense forces says he recorded a dozen casualties in his ranks in three days in January. Five of his soldiers died.
“Our boys are motivated, they all came to fight,” he told AFP. “But when there is no artillery support, when there are no tanks, they just shoot at us like in a firing range.”
- No running away –
Neither side reports its casualties, but the Ukrainians and Russians describe the battle of Bakhmut as the bloodiest of the war. Near the northern front in late January, AFP observed a dozen bodies presented as members of the Wagner group, abandoned on the frozen ground.
“Apparently, they were not allowed to escape,” said Vladislav, a Ukrainian soldier. “They did not recover from their injuries and in the end died here, in the field.”
Parallel to the clashes, a war of words is waged between Russians and Ukrainians.
In late December, while visiting Bakhmut, which had a population of 70,000 before the war and was known for its salt mines and sparkling wine, Zelensky spoke of the “Bakhmut fortress.”
For Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group, the “fierce” fighting in northern Bakhmut is “in every street, every house, every staircase.”
- Life in the hostels –
Burning buildings, projectile remnants, bloody snow littered with human remains: the signs of the fighting in the besieged city are indeed visible almost everywhere.
According to the authorities, more than half of the buildings in Bakhmut have been destroyed. The bridge over the small river that cuts through the city is a jumble of boards, tires, and pallets.
Natalia Shevchenko, who crosses it every day in search of drinking water, has grown accustomed to the sound of shells.
“Now I live in the basement. When I go out, I am like a mole, my eyes need to get used to the light,” says the resident, one of the 6,500 residents who decided to stay in Bakhmut.
More civilians have left since the fighting intensified, said Tetiana, a volunteer from a humanitarian center.
At the exit point, some people wait all night huddled near stoves with their few belongings.
Surviving “is a matter of luck,” says Mykola, a 24-year-old volunteer who attended a ceremony in Kiev to honor one of the two British volunteers killed in Soledar in January.
- “History repeats itself” –
Natalia Ievtushenko, 38, has tried to leave the city twice.
The first time, in April, her 16-year-old son died alongside 60 other civilians in a missile attack that hit a station in Kramatorsk, the main city in the Kiev-controlled region.
The second time, she was in a car accident. “I tried hard enough,” she laments.
Now she volunteers at a humanitarian center in Bakhmut, which provides food and warmth for a population whose precarious lives have become more difficult with winter.
In the surrounding trenches, the troops have no such support. They endure the bitter cold clutching candles made by volunteers, in snow and mud, sometimes without sleep for days at a time.
Ukrainian forces are preparing for a new attack, digging trenches to try to contain the Russian offensive.
In Sloviansk, about 50 km to the northwest, another soldier is buried in the frozen earth. The funeral is for 28-year-old Oleksandre Korovny, a member of the Azov battalion killed in Bakhmut.
A friend of his, Oleksi Storokh, points to a World War II memorial. “History repeats itself,” he says. “What is the point of it all?”.
*** Translated by the DEFCONPress FYI team ***