Russian troops and mercenaries have descended artillery on the last approaches to the besieged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, moving Moscow closer to its first victory in half a year after the war’s bloodiest fighting.
The head of the Wagner Group, a Russian private army, said Friday that the eastern salt mining town, which has been reduced to ruins, is now almost completely surrounded and only one road is open for the Ukrainian soldiers.
The Reuters news agency reported heavy Russian shelling of routes leading west from Bakhmut in an apparent attempt to block Ukrainian troops from entering the city. A bridge in the neighboring town of Khromove was damaged by Russian tank fire
Ukrainian soldiers were busy repairing damaged roads, and more soldiers made their way to the front lines, signaling that Ukraine was not yet ready to give up the city. In the west, Ukrainians were digging new trenches for defensive positions.
The commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited Bakhmut on Friday for briefings with local commanders on how to strengthen the defense capacity of the front troops.
Victory in Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of about 70,000, would give Russia the first major prize of a costly winter offensive after calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists last year. It says it would be a stepping stone to conquering the surrounding Donbas region, a major Russian war target.
Ukraine says the city has little intrinsic strategic value, but the massive losses there could determine the course of the war. It recaptured parts of the territory in the second half of 2022, but its troops have been on the defensive for three months now.
“Units of the Wagner private military company have practically surrounded Bakhmut,” said Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who appeared in combat uniform in a video posted to Telegram.
“There’s only one route (out) left,” he said. “The tongs close.”
He called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to order a withdrawal from Bakhmut to save the lives of his soldiers. The camera panned to show three imprisoned Ukrainians — an elderly man with a gray beard and two boys — asking to go home.
The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit operating in Bakhmut, Robert Brovdi, who goes by the name “Madyar”, said in a video posted on social media that his unit was ordered by the army to withdraw immediately. He said he had fought there for 110 days.
Both sides say they inflicted devastating losses in Bakhmut. Kiev has said its troops are still holding out there, but acknowledges that the situation has worsened this week.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, deputy commander of Ukraine’s national guard, told Ukrainian NV Radio that the situation was “critical” and fighting was going on “round the clock”.
“They don’t consider their losses when trying to take the city by assault,” he said. “The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every meter of Ukrainian land costs the enemy hundreds of lives.”
“We need as much ammunition as possible,” Nazarenko said. “There are many more Russians here than we have ammunition to destroy them.”
Meanwhile, the Kremlin warned the West against supplying more weapons to Ukraine as Kiev’s main supporters, US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, were due to meet in Washington on Friday.
In recent days, Russia has sounded the alarm about its own potential vulnerabilities after Moscow reported a number of drone strikes against targets deep within Russia, followed by what it said was an armed cross-border strike on Thursday.
President Vladimir Putin was seen on television Friday as he instructed his Security Council to step up “anti-terrorism measures”.
Scholz was scheduled to meet with Biden at the White House to discuss additional military aid to Ukraine. Germany is making the promised Leopard tanks in January and is expected to form the core of a new Ukrainian armored force.
Scholz has been criticized by some Western allies for taking a cautious public stance on arming Ukraine, though he has overseen a major policy shift from a country that was Russia’s largest energy customer on the eve of the war.
Kiev’s ambassador to Berlin, Oleksii Makeiev, said Germany is now taking a more leading role in arming Ukraine.
Washington is expected to announce its latest $400 million military aid package, consisting primarily of munitions and armored vehicles. The US has supplied nearly $32 billion in arms to Ukraine since the invasion.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides are believed to have died since Russia invaded its neighbor a year ago.
Moscow, which says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine, accuses Kiev of posing a security risk. Ukraine and its allies say the invasion was an unprovoked war of aggression.