Russian troops and mercenaries have rained artillery down on the last access routes to the besieged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, bringing Moscow closer to its first victory in half a year after the bloodiest fighting of the war.
The head of the Wagner Group, a private Russian army, said on Friday that the eastern salt-mining city, which has been blasted to ruins, was now almost completely surrounded with only one road still open for Ukraine’s soldiers.
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The Reuters news agency reported intense Russian shelling of routes leading west out of Bakhmut, an apparent attempt to block Ukrainian forces’ access in and out of the city. A bridge in the adjacent town of Khromove was damaged by Russian tank shelling
Ukrainian soldiers were working to repair damaged roads, and more soldiers were heading towards the front line in a sign that Ukraine was not yet ready to give up the city. To the west, Ukrainians were digging new trenches for defensive positions.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited Bakhmut on Friday for briefings with local commanders on how to boost the defence capacity of front-line forces.
Victory in Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of about 70,000 people, would give Russia the first major prize of a costly winter offensive after it called up hundreds of thousands of reservists last year. It says it would be a stepping stone to capturing the surrounding Donbas region, an important Russian war aim.
Ukraine says the city has little intrinsic strategic value but that the huge losses there could determine the course of the war. It recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, but its forces have now been on the defensive for three months.
“Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut,” Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said, appearing in combat uniform in a video posted on Telegram.
“Only one route [out] is left,” he said. “The pincers are closing.”
He called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to order a retreat from Bakhmut to save his soldiers’ lives. The camera panned to show three captured Ukrainians – a grey-bearded older man and two boys – asking to be allowed to go home.
The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit active in Bakhmut, Robert Brovdi who goes by the name “Madyar”, said in a video posted on social media that his unit had been ordered by the military to withdraw immediately. He said he had been fighting there for 110 days.
Both sides say they have inflicted devastating losses in Bakhmut. Kyiv has said its forces are still holding out there while acknowledging that the situation has deteriorated this week.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, Ukraine’s deputy national guard commander, told Ukrainian NV Radio the situation was “critical”, with fighting going on “round the clock”.
“They take no account of their losses in trying to take the city by assault,” he said. “The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every metre of Ukrainian land costs hundreds of lives to the enemy.”
“We need as much ammunition as possible,” Nazarenko said. “There are many more Russians here than we have ammunition to destroy them.”
The Kremlin, meanwhile, warned the West against providing more arms to Ukraine as key Kyiv backers, United States President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, were to meet on Friday in Washington.
The past few days have generated alarm in Russia over its own potential vulnerabilities after Moscow reported a number of drone attacks on targets deep within Russia followed by what it said was an armed cross-border raid on Thursday.
President Vladimir Putin was shown on television on Friday telling his Security Council to step up “anti-terrorism measures”.
Scholz was due to meet Biden at the White House to discuss additional military aid to Ukraine. Germany makes the Leopard tanks promised in January and expected to be the core of a new Ukrainian armoured force.
Scholz has been criticised by some Western allies for taking a cautious public stance towards arming Ukraine although he has overseen a big shift in policy from a country that was Russia’s biggest energy customer on the eve of the war.
Kyiv’s ambassador in Berlin, Oleksii Makeiev, said Germany was now taking more of a leadership role in arming Ukraine.
Washington is expected to announce its latest military aid package worth $400 million and mainly made up of ammunition and armoured vehicles. The US has provided nearly $32bn in weaponry to Ukraine since the invasion.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed since Russia invaded its neighbour a year ago.
Moscow, which says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine, accuses Kyiv of posing a security threat. Ukraine and its allies say the invasion was an unprovoked war of aggression.