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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Fierce battle rages for ‘every stairwell’ in Bakhmut, Russian paramilitary leader says


Mourners attend a funeral ceremony for Belarusian military volunteer Eduard Lobov at the Co-Cathedral of St. Alexander in Kyiv, Ukraine on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2023.


By MARC SANTORA and SHASHANK BENGALI


Fierce fighting raged Sunday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, where a Russian paramilitary leader said Ukrainian forces were defending “every street, every house, every stairwell,” as they waged an increasingly desperate effort to deny Moscow its first significant battlefield success in months.


Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner private military company, whose forces have helped lead Russia’s brutal campaign in Bakhmut, said that Ukrainian troops were “fighting to the last,” denying reports on social media that Ukraine’s forces were withdrawing from the key city in the eastern Donetsk region.


“The Armed Forces of Ukraine are not retreating anywhere,” Prigozhin said in a statement posted by one of his companies on Telegram, the social messaging app.


As Russia pours more troops into the battle in eastern Ukraine, its Defense Ministry claimed on Sunday that “offensive operations” had helped its forces gain “more advantageous lines and positions” around Donetsk. But there were growing signs that the bitter fighting was exacting an enormous toll on both sides.


Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, told a news conference that 500 Russian soldiers were being killed or wounded daily in their drive to take Bakhmut. Ukraine’s losses were significantly fewer, he added, without offering details.


It was not possible to independently verify either side’s account of the fighting. But Reznikov’s tally roughly matched that of U.S. officials, who believe hundreds of Russian soldiers are being killed or injured every day as the Kremlin rushes many more men — including lightly trained new recruits and ex-convicts — to the front line. Ukrainian forces have at times suffered similar losses in Bakhmut, U.S. officials say.


Reznikov acknowledged that the intense fighting was taking a toll on Ukrainian soldiers on the front line and that keeping up morale after a year of war was a “very serious challenge.”


“People are under crazy stress day and night,” he said.


Since last summer the Kremlin’s forces have bombarded Bakhmut, a city that Moscow sees as critical to achieving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective of capturing all of Donbas, which includes Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk region. Ukraine has warned that Russia could be starting a renewed offensive in the east as its troops seek to give Putin a victory to mark the anniversary of his invasion, on Feb. 24.


After losing significant ground to Ukrainian counterattacks last fall, Russia has escalated its campaign in the east, bringing in more troops and intensifying its artillery strikes. Russian forces have slowly surrounded Bakhmut on three sides and cut off many of the roads leading into and out of the city. That has left Ukrainian forces with one road as their last major supply line — or potential escape route.


“Bakhmut is increasingly isolated,” Britain’s defense intelligence agency reported Sunday.


President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine on Saturday night called the situation in Bakhmut and other parts of the east “very difficult,” saying that Russia was throwing in “more and more of its forces to break our defenses.”


As more Russian troops arrive on the front, many likely drawn from Putin’s recent call-up of 300,000 reservists, Reznikov said Russian forces have changed their tactics in recent weeks, attempting to overwhelm Ukrainian defensive lines by deploying wave upon wave of small assault groups.


Ukraine also has a large military presence in the region around Bakhmut, with large troop transports and armored vehicles crowding the roads as Ukrainian forces mount a defense that has forced Russia to commit significant resources to the fighting.


“The situation remains complex but under control,” Reznikov said. He described Bakhmut as a fortress that holds great symbolism for Ukraine, and said that any decision on a tactical withdrawal would be made by military generals.


But some Ukrainian soldiers deployed there are increasingly pessimistic about the fate of the city. They are killing Russians, one soldier recently told The New York Times, but not fast enough.


Three people were killed in Russian attacks Saturday in Bakhmut, the head of the regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Telegram. A fourth was killed in the settlement of Yampol, to the north, he said.


On Sunday morning, Russian forces struck a school that Ukrainian soldiers appeared to be using as a base in the town of Druzhkivka, west of Bakhmut. A blast ripped out window frames and damaged the building’s facade. Another missile hit an apartment complex directly across from the school, blasting a large hole through the first floor and cutting through a number of apartments.


Five residents were injured in the strikes, according to local authorities.


In northeastern Ukraine, five people were injured in a Russian missile attack on the center of Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, regional officials said Sunday.


A Ukrainian counteroffensive drove Russian forces out of the Kharkiv region last September, and Reznikov said Ukraine had not seen signs that Russia was preparing to mount a new campaign aimed at the northeast. Nor did Ukraine believe Moscow had enough combat troops in neighboring Belarus, which it used as a staging ground for its invasion last year, to launch a serious assault against Kyiv, the capital, he added.


But he said that Moscow remained intent on expanding the territory it controlled in southern Ukraine to tighten its grip on Crimea, the Ukrainian peninsula it illegally captured in 2014, and was focusing its troop buildup on the east and south.


Western allies are rushing battle tanks, armored vehicles and other advanced weapons to help Ukraine, although many are not expected to arrive for months. Ukrainian soldiers on Monday were expected to begin training outside the country on German-made Leopard tanks, dozens of which were pledged by allies last month.

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