BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Russian soldiers pummeling a city in eastern Ukraine with artillery are slowly edging closer in their attempt to seize Bakhmut, which has remained in Ukrainian hands during the eight-month war despite Moscow’s goal of capturing the entire Donbas region bordering Russia.
While much of the fighting in the last month has unfolded in southern Ukraine’s Kherson region, the battle heating up around Bakhmut demonstrates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for visible gains following weeks of clear setbacks in Ukraine.
Taking Bakhmut would rupture Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press on toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk province. Pro-Moscow separatists have controlled part of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province since 2014.
Before invading Ukraine, Putin recognized the independence of the rebels’ self-proclaimed republics. Last month, he illegally annexed the Donetsk, Luhansk and two other provinces that Russian forces occupied or mostly occupied.
Russia has battered Bakhmut with rockets for more than five months. The ground assault accelerated after its troops forced the Ukrainians to withdraw from Luhansk in July. The line of contact is now on the city’s outskirts. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military company, are reported to be leading the charge.
Russia’s prolonged drive for Bakhmut exposes Moscow’s “craziness,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a nightly 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 the Russian forces who were less than 5 kilometers (3 miles) away by early Thursday, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank in Washington.
Russia needs a victory in Bakhmut given it losing control over large swaths of the northeastern region of Kharkiv to a Ukrainian counteroffensive last month and its deteriorating position in Kherson. The areas were among the first the Russian military captured after the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia’s suffering defeats across the board. … They need the optics of some kind of an offensive victory to assuage critics at home and to show the Russian public that this war is still going to plan,” said Samuel Ramani, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense and security think tank based in London.
The Wagner Group has played a prominent role in the war, and human rights organizations have accused its soldiers for hire of committing atrocities. Their deployment around Bakhmut reflects the city’s strategic important to Moscow. However, it’s unclear if the mercenaries have made many tangible gains, according to Ramani.
“We’re seeing a situation where the Wagner Group is quite effective at creating terror amongst the local residents but much less effective at actually capturing and holding territory,” he said. At the very best they’re gaining 1 kilometer (0.6 mile) a week toward Bakhmut, he said.
While in the city this week, journalists from The Associated Press saw burned-out cars, destroyed buildings and people struggling to survive amid a cacophony of constant shelling. Bakhmut has been without electricity or water for a month, and residents worry about heating their homes as temperatures drop.
“We hoped that this (war) would end or that we would have conditions that allow us to live. But since last month, conditions have been terrible,” resident Leonid Tarasov said.
Few shops 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 approximately 90% have left the city, according to Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian governor of the Donetsk region.
Some of those who remained asked in recent days to be evacuated from areas that are now too dangerous for volunteers or soldiers to get to because of the fighting, Roman Zhylenkov a volunteer with the local aid group Vostok-SOS, said.
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 mixed soup on an open fire by the side of the road. “But as for us, we don’t have a place to go. That’s why we are here.”
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