Fierce fighting is raging for control of the centre of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, forces from both sides of the conflict have said, as casualties continue to mount in the longest and bloodiest battle of Russia’s war.
Russia ratcheted up its efforts to take Bakhmut in early February after months of intense fighting around the town, and has since inched into the small city’s suburbs. Ukraine’s forces are now fighting off attacks from the north, east and south. Their only road out, to the west, is under Russian artillery fire.
Ukraine insists there is a strategy behind continuing the fight for Bakhmut. The head of Ukraine’s ground forces, Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, said on Sunday that it was using the defence of Bakhmut to buy time until Ukraine is able to carry out an anticipated spring offensive. Syrskyi also said Ukraine was using the opportunity to kill as many Russian troops as possible and wear down its reserves.
“It is necessary to buy time to build reserves and launch a counteroffensive, which is not far off,” Syrskyi said in a statement. “[Ukrainian soldiers are] inflicting the heaviest possible losses, sparing neither themselves nor the enemy.”
Western intelligence agencies estimate Russia has taken 20-30,000 casualties in Bakhmut. Thousands of social media posts dedicated to Ukraine’s dead indicate Ukraine’s losses are also high.
Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, claimed on Sunday that there had been more than 1,100 deaths of Russian forces in the past few days, while Russia’s ministry of defence claimed it had killed 220 Ukrainian soldiers in the last 24 hours. The Guardian could not verify the figures put forward by either side.
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. Kyiv has cautioned that the city’s fall would give Russian forces a clear path deeper into Donetsk province, which the Kremlin claimed to have annexed into Russia last year. The capture of the city would also provide the Kremlin with a military win to sell to its domestic audience.
Syrskyi said on Monday that Russia’s Wagner mercenary force, which has been leading the offensive, was advancing in several directions and trying to break through to the city’s centre. He said Ukrainian soldiers were maintaining their defensive lines.
“The situation around Bakhmut remains difficult,” Syrskyi said in a statement on Telegram. Syrskyi said Ukrainian troops were inflicting “significant losses” on Russia and that their attempts to take Bakhmut city centre had been “repelled by artillery, tanks, and other firepower”.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Wagner, said on Sunday in a voice recording published on the Telegram that the situation in Bakhmut was “difficult, very difficult, the enemy is fighting for every metre … the closer to the city centre, the fiercer the fighting”.
Dozens of videos have appeared on TikTok in the past week, posted by Ukrainian soldiers in and around Bakhmut, appealing to Zelenskiy to order a retreat. Ukrainian social media has also been flooded with tributes to soldiers who have been killed in the battle for Bakhmut and those who have gone missing in the fighting.
Agence France-Presse contributed to this report