Russian forces, including mercenary fighters from the Wagner Group, are trying to cut the Ukrainian defenders’ supply lines to the city, scene of some of the war’s bloodiest battles, and force them to surrender or withdraw.
That would give Russia its first major prize in more than half a year and open the way to the capture of the last remaining urban centres in the Donetsk region, which Moscow claims to have annexed along with three other Ukrainian regions.
“Despite significant losses, the enemy threw in the most prepared assault units of Wagner, who are trying to break through the defences of our troops and surround the city,” Ukraine’s Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi was quoted as saying on a military messaging platform.
Russia’s RIA news agency released a video clip which it said showed Russian Su-25 fighter jets roaring over Bakhmut. “We are glad they are ours,” says a man in the clip identified as a Wagner fighter, adding the jets helped them “psychologically”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has described Bakhmut as “our fortress” that must be defended to the last, said in his nightly radio address that Russian forces “are constantly destroying everything that can be used to protect our positions for fortification and defence”.
Ukraine’s military said Russia was also shelling settlements around Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of around 70,000 but now lies in ruins after months of intense trench warfare.
“Over the past day, our soldiers repelled more than 60 enemy attacks,” the military said early on Tuesday referring to Bakhmut and nearby eastern areas, adding that Ukrainian forces had repelled Russian attacks on the villages of Yadhidne and Berkhivka, on the northern approaches to Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said that Russian forces had driven a wedge between those villages.
“The southern part of Bakhmut is the only area which can be described as under Ukrainian control. In all other districts, the situation is unpredictable… It is impossible to say where the frontline lies,” he said in a video commentary.
Ukrainian soldiers in Donetsk region hunkered in muddy trenches after warmer weather thawed out the frozen ground.
“Both sides stay in their positions, because as you see, spring means mud. Thus, it is impossible to move forward,” said Mykola, 59, commander of a Ukrainian frontline rocket launcher battery, watching a tablet screen for coordinates to fire.
The spring thaw, known as the “rasputitsa”, has a history of ruining plans by armies to attack across Ukraine and western Russia, turning roads into rivers and fields into quagmires.
Reuters saw several military vehicles stuck in mud. In a zigzag trench, Volodymyr, a 25-year-old platoon commander, said his men were prepared to operate in any weather.
“When we’re given a target, that means we have to destroy it.”
Russia, its forces replenished with hundreds of thousands of conscripts, has intensified its attacks right along the eastern front but its assaults have come at a high cost, Ukraine says.
Moscow said its forces had destroyed a Ukrainian ammunition depot near Bakhmut and shot down U.S.-made rockets and Ukrainian drones.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield reports.
The Russian defence ministry, without providing evidence, said the United States was planning a provocation in Ukraine using toxic chemicals. There was no immediate U.S. response.
YELLEN IN KYIV
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen became the latest senior Western official to visit the Ukrainian capital, promising assistance and more measures to isolate Russia after meetings with Zelenskiy and other officials.
Her boss, President Joe Biden, went there a week ago to mark the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“America will stand with Ukraine as long as it takes,” Yellen, flanked by sandbags at the Cabinet office, told Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal on Monday.
Yellen announced the transfer of the first $1.25 billion from the latest, $9.9 billion tranche of U.S. economic and budget assistance, and also backed completion of a fully financed programme for Ukraine with the International Monetary Fund by the end of March.
Zelenskiy, whose forces are expected to attempt a counter-offensive in the coming months, pushed again for F-16 fighter jets that his Western allies have been reluctant to provide.
“We will be able to completely protect our skies when the aviation taboo is fully lifted in relations with our partners,” Zelenskiy said in his radio address.
The first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, on Feb. 24, saw both sides trying to demonstrate resolve for a second year of war.
President Vladimir Putin said Moscow would suspend its participation in the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the United States, and he accused the West of seeking to destroy Russia.
Biden, speaking in Kyiv on Feb. 20, said Ukraine “stands strong” and that Moscow would never defeat it.
Ukraine’s outnumbered troops repelled Russia’s attack aimed at taking Kyiv early in the war and later recaptured substantial territory, but Russia still occupies nearly a fifth of Ukraine.