Ukraine, Russia locked in brutal battle in Bakhmut, casualties mount
KYIV, March 13 (Reuters) – Ukrainian forces faced relentless Russian attacks on Bakhmut in its eastern Donetsk region on Monday, with both sides reporting mounting enemy casualties as they battled across a small river that bisects the ruined town and now marks the front line.
The situation in the nearly deserted town was difficult, the commander of Ukrainian ground forces said, though adding that his forces were repelling all Russian attempts to capture it.
“All enemy attempts to capture the town are repelled by artillery, tanks, and other firepower,” Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi was quoted as saying on the Ukraine’s Media Military Centre Telegram messaging platform.
Ukrainian forces control the west of Bakhmut, while Russia’s Wagner mercenary group controls most of the eastern part, with the Bakhmutka River that flows through the town marking the front line, British intelligence said in a weekend update.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Sunday the situation 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,” Prigozhin said in comments 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.
Prigozhin had previously complained that Russia’s top brass was deliberately starving his men of ammunition, an allegation the defence ministry rejected.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the report.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said late on Sunday his forces had killed more than 1,100 Russian soldiers in the past few days as they fought for control of Bakhmut.
“In less than a week, starting from the 6th March, we managed to kill more than 1,100 enemy soldiers in the Bakhmut sector alone, Russia’s irreversible loss,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.
Russian forces sustained 1,500 “sanitary losses”, soldiers wounded badly enough to keep them out of action, he added.
Russia’s defence ministry said earlier in the day that its forces had killed more than 220 Ukrainian service members over the past 24 hours in the Donetsk region.
Prigozhin said Wagner “will begin to reboot” and start hiring once Bakhmut is captured. Wagner has opened recruitment centres across 42 cities to replenish its ranks.
Neither side gave details of their own casualties.
WAITING FOR TANKS
While Bakhmut’s strategic value is debatable, Russia sees capturing it as a step towards a major aim of the war – now in its second year – of seizing all of Ukraine’s Donbas industrial region. Donetsk and Luhansk regions make up the Donbas.
Ukraine has decided to stay and fight on in the mining town, after initial signs it was planning to withdraw, to grind down Russia’s best units ahead of an expected spring offensive by Ukrainian forces.
Analysts expect a Ukrainian counter-offensive to begin in earnest over April-May as the weather improves and more military aid arrives, including heavy Leopard and Challenger tanks.
Western tanks will significantly change war tactics, Leonid Khoda, a decorated Ukrainian tank brigade commander, told Reuters.
“Everyone is waiting, 1st Tank Brigade is waiting too. Not long ago we sent personnel to learn to operate (Leopard) 2A6,” said Khoda, who commands the 1st Siversk Tank Brigade which is fighting in the south of Donetsk.
Elsewhere, Russia’s air defence shot down four missiles over its Belgorod region bordering Ukraine on Monday, its governor said, adding that one person was injured.
Vyacheslav Gladkov did not say who was behind the attacks but in the past he has accused Ukrainian forces on the other side of the border of similar attacks.
The Russia-controlled Ukrainian city of Donetsk was shelled four times on Sunday, with residential areas and power lines hit and Russian-installed officials blaming Ukraine.
Ukraine almost never claims responsibility for attacks inside Russia and on Russia-controlled territory in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba has urged Germany to speed up supplies of ammunition and to start training Ukrainian pilots on Western fighter jets.
Kuleba made clear he did not expect Western allies to give Ukraine the aircraft it has been asking for any time soon, but said pilots should be ready for when the decision was taken.
A senior EU official said the European Union could soon top up a fund for purchasing weapons for Ukraine by 3.5 billion euros ($3.7 billion).