CHASIV YAR, Ukraine – Russian troops and mercenaries rained artillery on the last access routes to the besieged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut on Friday, March 3, bringing Moscow closer to its first major victory in half a year after the bloodiest fighting of the war.
The head of Russia’s Wagner private army, speaking in a video recorded some 7 km (4 miles) north of Bakhmut, said the city, which has been blasted to ruins, was now almost completely surrounded with only one road still open for Ukraine’s troops.
Reuters observed intense Russian shelling of routes leading west out of Bakhmut, an apparent attempt to block Ukrainian forces’ access in and out of the city. A bridge in the adjacent town of Khromove was damaged by Russian tank shelling.
Ukrainian soldiers were working to repair damaged roads and more troops were heading towards the frontline in a sign that Ukraine was not yet ready to give up the city. To the west, Ukrainians were digging new trenches for defensive positions.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited Bakhmut on Friday for briefings with local commanders on how to boost the defense capacity of frontline forces.
“The enemy is not giving up its hope of capturing Bakhmut and continues to build up forces to occupy the city,” the press service said.
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 it called up hundreds of thousands of reservists last year. It says it would be a stepping stone to capturing the surrounding Donbas region, an important war aim.
Ukraine says the city has little intrinsic strategic value but that the huge losses there could determine the course of the war. It recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022 but its forces have now been on the defensive for three months.
“Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut,” Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said, appearing in combat uniform in a video that Reuters determined was filmed on a rooftop in a village 7 km (4.3 miles) north of the centre of Bakhmut.
“Only one route (out) is left,” he said. “The pincers are closing.”
He called on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to order a retreat from Bakhmut to save his soldiers’ lives. The camera panned to show three captured Ukrainians – a grey-bearded older man and two boys – asking to be allowed to go home.
The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit active in Bakhmut, Robert Brovdi who goes by the name “Madyar”, said in a video posted on social media that his unit had been ordered by the military to withdraw immediately. He said he had been fighting there for 110 days.
Both sides say they have inflicted devastating losses in Bakhmut. Kyiv has said its forces are still holding out there, while acknowledging that the situation has deteriorated this week.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, told Ukrainian NV Radio the situation was “critical”, with fighting going on “round the clock”.
“They take no account of their losses in trying to take the city by assault. The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every metre of Ukrainian land costs hundreds of lives to the enemy,” he said.
“We need as much ammunition as possible. There are many more Russians here than we have ammunition to destroy them.”
More US arms
The past few days have seen alarm in Russia at its own potential vulnerabilities after Moscow reported a number of drone attacks on targets deep within Russia, followed by what it said was an armed cross-border raid on Thursday.
President Vladimir Putin was shown on television on Friday telling his Security Council to step up “anti-terrorism measures”.
Zelenskiy, for his part, visited wounded soldiers at a military hospital in Lviv. One, shaking the president’s hand from bed, apologized that he could not stand up. “That’s OK,” Zelenskiy said. “The time will come and you will rise.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was due to meet US President Joe Biden at the White House to discuss additional military aid to Ukraine. Germany makes the Leopard tanks promised in January and expected to be the core of a new Ukrainian armored force.
Scholz has been criticized by some Western allies for taking a cautious public stance towards arming Ukraine, although he has overseen a big shift in policy from a country that was Russia’s biggest energy customer on the eve of the war.
Kyiv’s ambassador in Berlin, Oleksii Makeiev, said Germany was now taking more of a leadership role in arming Ukraine.
Washington will announce its latest military aid package worth $400 million, mainly comprising ammunition and armored vehicles. The United States has provided nearly $32 billion in weaponry to Ukraine since the invasion.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides are believed to have been killed since Russia invaded its pro-Western neighbor a year ago.
Moscow, which says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine, accuses Kyiv of posing a security threat. Ukraine and its allies say the invasion was an unprovoked war to conquer land.
On the sidelines of a G20 foreign ministers meeting in India, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefly met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov face to face for the first time since the invasion.
Blinken told Lavrov to end the war, and urged Moscow to reverse its suspension – announced last week – of the last remaining nuclear arms control agreement, US officials said.
Speaking at a forum in the Indian capital on Friday, Blinken said Russia cannot be allowed to wage war with impunity, otherwise it would send “a message to would-be aggressors everywhere that they may be able to get away with it too.” – Rappler.com
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