Russia’s hope Ukraine wins revealed in battle for Bakhmut

BAKHMUT, Ukraine –

Russian soldiers shelling a town in eastern Ukraine draw slowly closer as they seek to seize Bakhmut, which has remained in Ukrainian hands during the eight-month war despite Moscow’s goal of capturing the entire Donbas region. border with Russia.

While much of the fighting in the past month has been in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, the battle heating up around Bakhmut demonstrates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for visible gains later. of weeks of clear setbacks in Ukraine.

Taking Bakhmut would sever Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to advance towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk province. Pro-Moscow separatists have controlled parts of Donetsk and neighboring Lugansk province since 2014.

Before invading Ukraine, Putin recognized the independence of the self-proclaimed republics from the rebels. Last month, he illegally annexed Donetsk, Luhansk and two other provinces that Russian forces have occupied or mostly occupied.

Russia has hit Bakhmut with rockets for more than five months. The ground assault accelerated after his troops forced the Ukrainians to withdraw from Luhansk in July. The contact line is now on the outskirts of the city. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military company, are reportedly leading the charge.

Russia’s prolonged push for Bakhmut exposes Moscow’s “madness,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a late-night address to the nation this week.

“Day after day, for months, they have been driving people there to their deaths, concentrating the maximum power of artillery strikes there,” Zelenskyy said.

The shelling killed at least three people between Wednesday and Thursday, according to local authorities.

Ukraine’s military is firing mortars and heavy artillery to repel Russian forces less than 5 kilometers (3 miles) away early Thursday, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank.

Russia needs a victory in Bakhmut as it lost control of large swaths of the northeastern Kharkiv region due to a Ukrainian counteroffensive last month and its deteriorating position in Kherson. The areas were among the first the Russian military captured after the February 24 invasion of Ukraine.

“Russia suffers defeats across the board… They need the optics of some kind of offensive victory to appease critics at home and show the Russian public that this war is still going according to plan,” said Associate Fellow Samuel Ramani. at the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense and security think tank.

The Wagner Group has played a prominent role in the war, and human rights organizations have accused its paid soldiers of committing atrocities. Its deployment around Bakhmut reflects the city’s strategic importance to Moscow. However, it is unclear whether the mercenaries have made much tangible gains, according to Ramani.

“We are seeing a situation where the Wagner Group is quite effective at creating terror among local residents, but much less effective at capturing and holding territory,” he said. At best, they are gaining 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) a week to Bakhmut, he said.

While in the city this week, Associated Press reporters saw cars burned, buildings destroyed and people struggling to survive amid a cacophony of constant bombing. Bakhmut has been without power and water for a month, with residents worrying about heating their homes as temperatures drop.

“We hoped that this (war) would end or that we would have conditions that would allow us to live. But since last month, the conditions have been terrible,” said resident Leonid Tarasov.

Few stores are open. The AP saw people using firewood to cook on the streets and drawing water from wells.

Bakhmut had a population of about 73,000 people before the war, but about 90% left the city, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region.

Some of those who remained have called in recent days to be evacuated from areas now too dangerous for volunteers or soldiers to reach because of the fighting, said Roman Zhylenkov, a volunteer with the local aid group Vostok-SOS.

Others feel trapped.

“People who left moved to stay with their children or brothers and sisters. They had places to go,” Ilona Ierhilieieva said as she cooked soup over a roadside campfire. “But as for us, we have nowhere to go. That’s why we’re here.”

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