KYIV – Fierce fighting was raging for control of the centre of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, the longest-running and bloodiest battle of the war, the Ukrainian military and the Wagner Group said on Monday.
“Wagner assault units are advancing from several directions, trying to break through our troops’ defensive positions and move to the centre of the city. In fierce battles, our defenders are inflicting significant losses on the enemy,” the Ukrainian military said in a morning briefing, referring to the Russian mercenary group that has claimed to be leading Moscow’s offensive.
Wagner, meanwhile, said the Ukrainian forces were “battling for every metre”.
Analysts are divided over the strategic significance of Bakhmut as a military prize.
But the city has gained important political stature, with both sides pouring significant resources into the fight. It has become the main focus of a Russian winter campaign involving hundreds of thousands of freshly conscripted reservists and mercenaries.
Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin acknowledged that his forces were experiencing determined resistance as they seek to capture the centre of the city.
“The situation in Bakhmut is difficult, very difficult. The enemy is battling for every metre,” he said in a post on social media.
“The closer we are to the city centre, the more difficult the battles get and the more artillery there is... Ukrainians are throwing endless reserves (at the fight). But we are advancing, and we will be advancing.”
He also said Russian soldiers were providing his troops with truckloads of ammunition. He has previously complained that Russia’s top brass was deliberately starving his men of ammunition, an allegation the defence ministry rejected.
Kyiv announced last week that it had decided to defend Bakhmut rather than withdraw. Russian forces led by the Wagner private army have captured the eastern part of the city but have so far failed to encircle it.
“All enemy attempts to capture the town are repelled by artillery, tanks and other firepower,” Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, Ukraine’s commander of ground forces who has vowed not to withdraw, was quoted as saying by the country’s Media Military Centre.
The months-long fight for Bakhmut has become Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War II, described as a meat grinder by both sides.
Moscow says taking it would be a major success, opening a path to capture the rest of the surrounding Donetsk region, a central war aim.
Kyiv says it has decided not to pull out, continuing the fight to inflict losses on a Russian assault force it says is driven by President Vladimir Putin’s need to claim his only victory in over half a year.
After Ukrainian advances throughout the second half of 2022, Kyiv has focused on the defensive for the last three months, while Moscow has launched an offensive campaign using mobilised reservists and convicts recruited from prison as mercenaries.
Kyiv has signalled plans for a counter-assault later in the spring, when muddy ground dries and hundreds of Western armoured vehicles and Challenger and Leopard battle tanks arrive.
The tanks would have a major impact, said Colonel Leonid Khoda, commander of Ukraine’s 1st Tank Brigade which is fighting in the Donbas, comprised of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“Everyone is waiting, 1st Tank Brigade is waiting too. Not long ago, we sent personnel to learn to operate (Leopard) 2A6,” he said.
Ukraine says wearing out Russia’s military now will help its counteroffensive later.
But not every Western military analyst is convinced that Bakhmut is the best battlefield to take on the Russians, due to casualties on the Ukrainian side.
“The attrition ratio in Bakhmut is worse than elsewhere,” tweeted US defence expert Rob Lee, who visited Bakhmut in March. REUTERS, AFP