Battle for Bakhmut in Ukraine reaches critical stage

Moscow and Kyiv claim they are inflicting heavy casualties on each other's forces

Ukrainian soldiers hold their positions at the front line near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk enclave, on Saturday. AFP
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The seven-month-long battle for Bakhmut in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk enclave may be drawing to a close as Kyiv's forces, who are fighting desperately to hold the centre of the city, are close to being encircled.

Russian forces, led by mercenaries from the Wagner Group, have reached the Bakhmutka river, a British Defence Ministry assessment revealed on Sunday evening.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence claims to have killed more than 200 Ukrainian soldiers in 24 hours in the fighting, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday evening that 1,100 Russians had been killed in six days of fighting, with 1,500 wounded.

But a widely expected Ukrainian withdrawal from the city has yet to materialise, leading some analysts to suspect that Kyiv has decided to hold the terrain, despite its questionable strategic importance.

Both sides are low on critical artillery ammunition and dealing with worn-out artillery barrels.

Russian forces have reportedly resorted to using obsolete T-62 tanks as mobile artillery pieces while Ukraine frequently uses commercially available drones to drop grenades on Russian positions.

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Sunday the situation in Bakhmut was “tough, very tough”.

“The closer we are to the centre of the city, the harder the fighting … The Ukrainians throw in endless reserves. But we are advancing and we will be advancing,” Mr Prigozhin said in an audio released by his press service.

He also said Russian army members helped his troops with ammunition.

“Yesterday, we got 15 truckloads, today we got 12. And I think we will continue to receive them,” he said, adding there was no conflict between his fighters and Russian troops.

Mr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces continued to strike Russian ammunition depots, something analysts say was critical to blunting Russia’s artillery advantage at the start of the war.

Mr Prigozhin had previously been extremely critical of the Russian Ministry of Defence, accusing Moscow of intentionally sidelining his forces, as well as failing to plan the war effectively.

While Bakhmut's strategic value is debatable, Russia considers its capture as a step towards a major aim of the war — now in its second year — of seizing all of Ukraine's Donbas industrial region.

The Donetsk and Luhansk enclaves make up the Donbas.

Analysts expect a Ukrainian counter-offensive to begin in earnest between April and May as the weather improves and more military aid arrives, including heavy Leopard and Challenger tanks.

Western tanks will significantly change war tactics, Col Leonid Khoda, a seasoned Ukrainian tank brigade commander who received the Hero of Ukraine award less than a month after Russia's full scale invasion, told Reuters.

“Everyone is waiting, 1st Tank Brigade is waiting too. Not long ago we sent personnel to learn to operate [Leopard] 2A6,” said Col Khoda, who commands the 1st Siversk Tank Brigade which is fighting in the south of Donetsk.

Elsewhere, Russian shelling killed three civilians who were on their way to buy groceries in the southern city of Kherson on Saturday, Mr Zelenskyy said, denouncing what he called “brutal terrorist attacks” by pro-Moscow units.

Updated: March 13, 2023, 5:27 AM