Ukrainian forces were hanging onto their positions in the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut amid constant attacks as Russian troops pushed to claim their first significant victory for more than half a year.
Russia says seizing the salt-mining town of Bakhmut, now the site of the longest and bloodiest battle since Moscow invaded its neighbour just over a year ago, would put it on a path to securing full control of the rest of the strategic Donbas industrial region, one of its main objectives.
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Ukraine says Bakhmut has limited strategic value but has nevertheless put up fierce resistance.
“Heavy battles are ongoing for our Bakhmut,” said Oleksiy Reva, the head of the city’s military administration.
Only 4,500 people remain in the city, which once had a population of about 70,000.
A statement on Wednesday night by the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Russian troops were attempting to advance on Bakhmut “without interruption”. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his forces “are keeping each sector of the front under control”.
Not everyone in Ukraine is convinced it can continue to defend the city.
“I believe that sooner or later, we will probably have to leave Bakhmut. There is no sense in holding it at any cost…,” Ukrainian member of parliament Serhiy Rakhmanin said on Ukrainian NV radio on Wednesday night.
“But for the moment, Bakhmut will be defended with several aims: firstly, to inflict as many Russian losses as possible and make Russia use its ammunition and resources.”
Lines of defence should not be allowed to collapse, Rakhmanin added.
“There are two ways to approach this – an organised retreat or simple flight, and we cannot allow flight to take place under any circumstances.”
In its latest update on assessed control of terrain, the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, said Russian forces were advancing within Bakhmut.
“Ukrainian officials continue to emphasise that Ukrainian troops have the option to conduct a controlled withdrawal from Bakhmut if they see fit,” the ISW said.
The battle for Bakhmut began about seven months ago but in recent weeks, Russian advances have left defenders fighting on three sides, with their only way out to the west.
The Ukrainian military’s statement also said Russian forces were preparing for new attacks in the central Zaporizhia region as well as on the southern front in the Kherson region.
More than 40 towns and villages had been shelled, it said, including the regional centre of Kherson and other towns on the west bank of the Dnieper River, which was abandoned by Russian forces in November.
‘Winter is over’
Ukrainians and Russians traditionally mark March 1 as the start of spring. Already, frozen ground has melted at the front, ushering in the season of the sucking black mud – “bezdorizhzhia” in Ukrainian, “rasputitsa” in Russian – that has been notorious in military history for destroying attacking armies.
Zelenskyy praised Ukrainians for surviving a winter marked by systematic Russian attacks on energy facilities, which plunged millions into darkness and cold.
“Winter is over. It was a very difficult one and every Ukrainian, without exaggeration, felt the difficulties,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video message on Wednesday.
“But we managed to provide Ukraine with energy and heat. The threat to the energy system remains and work goes on to ensure the energy system keeps functioning,” he said.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba hailed the first day of spring as another “major defeat” for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
“We survived the most difficult winter in our history. It was cold and dark, but we were unbreakable,” Kuleba said in a statement.
Russia has tried to justify its invasion by saying it was necessary to eliminate “security threats”.
Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, which collapsed in 1991, but has moved closer to Western Europe since gaining its independence.