Russia and Ukraine battle for control of villages near key city of Bakhmut

Bakhmut has become a focal point of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. PHOTO: AFP

BAKHMUT, Ukraine – Russian forces were wrestling for control of villages in eastern Ukraine near the beleaguered city of Bakhmut over the weekend.

It is the latest flashpoint in a battle that Moscow views as crucial for its push to seize the whole of the eastern region of Donbas.

Ukraine’s general staff said on Sunday that its soldiers had repelled attacks on the small village of Blahodatne and several other settlements in the area. The statement came a day after Russia’s Wagner group, a private military company that has conducted much of the fighting around Bakhmut on Moscow’s behalf, claimed that its forces had captured Blahodatne.

“Blahodatne is under our control,” Mr Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and the head of the Wagner group, said on Saturday in a statement posted on a website for one of his companies.

Russia’s Defence Ministry has not confirmed the report, and the claim could not be independently verified.

Mr Prigozhin has sought to cast his mercenaries as the most effective fighting force in the area, and previously has claimed credit for battlefield advances ahead of Kremlin confirmation.

Blahodatne lies between Soledar, a salt mining town that Russian forces recently captured after weeks of intense fighting, and a road that runs north from the city of Bakhmut. The road serves as a crucial supply line for Ukrainian forces defending the city.

Since the summer, Bakhmut has become a focal point of the fighting in eastern Ukraine and the target of Moscow’s most significant offensive.

Moscow aims to encircle Bakhmut, cut off its supply routes and then force the city’s defenders to withdraw.

Despite some recent success, Russia’s progress in the campaign, which began over the summer, has been grindingly slow, and both sides have sustained heavy casualties in intense fighting.

But since capturing Soledar earlier in January, Russian forces have stepped up shelling of the villages just to the west of it, including Blahodatne.

Many civilians have followed a directive from the government in Kyiv to leave Donetsk, which is home to Bakhmut and one of the two regions that make up the Donbas region.

Civilians who have stayed remain vulnerable to shelling and artillery attacks, with dozens killed in recent weeks.

The head of Donetsk’s military administration Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Sunday that five civilians had been killed a day earlier in the region.

Almost a year after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, both sides are expected to launch renewed offensives in the coming months, as Kyiv puts to use the heavy weapons sent from the West and Russia deploys the huge numbers of men it drafted last year.

Amid warnings that Russian forces were regrouping for an anticipated spring offensive, Ukraine’s allies pledged new sophisticated weapons for the fight.

Germany and the United States last week announced they would send battle tanks to Ukraine, a move that came after weeks of tense back-channel negotiations between Western officials. But it may be months before the tanks rumble across the battlefield.

Britain’s Defence Ministry said on Sunday that the first Ukrainian soldiers had arrived in Britain for training on the Challenger 2 tanks that were promised earlier in January.

In a speech on Saturday, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed gratitude for the latest promises of military aid, but said his country’s allies should still do more.

“Ukraine needs long-range missiles, in particular, to remove this possibility of the occupiers to place their missile launchers somewhere far from the front line and destroy Ukrainian cities with them,” he said in an overnight address.

The city of Kherson, in southern Ukraine, has faced repeated strikes in recent weeks. On Sunday, shelling there killed at least three people and wounded six others, including a nurse, according to the regional military administration.

“Today, the Russian army has been shelling Kherson atrociously all day,” Mr Zelensky said in his nightly address on Sunday. “Residential buildings, various social and transport facilities, including a hospital, post office and bus station, have been damaged. Two women, nurses, were wounded in the hospital. As of now, there are reports of six wounded and three dead.”

Russian forces have shelled Kherson on a near-daily basis following their retreat from the city in November.

But the Kremlin has set full control of the Donbas, where it has held considerable ground since 2014, as its immediate military objective. To that end it has mobilised tens of thousands of new recruits, although it has failed to achieve sweeping territorial gains in the region in recent months.

Military authorities in Ukraine say that Moscow’s advances in the Donbas region have come at the expense of heavy casualties, not least among the ranks of the Wagner private military company. Some analysts of the conflict say that Wagner’s failure to secure Bakhmut, even after months of fighting, has dimmed its star in some Russian military circles.

The Institute for the Study of War, a think-tank based in Washington, said in a report on Saturday that conventional Russian forces were “likely replacing exhausted” Wagner forces “to maintain the offensive in Bakhmut” after the capture of Soledar.

But Russia might be less willing to sustain heavy losses among regular conscripts than among Wagner fighters, the report said.

“The Russians’ ability to execute large-scale rapid offensives on multiple axes this winter and spring is thus very questionable,” the report said. NYTIMES

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