Fighting raged around the Ukrainian-held city of Bakhmut, Russian and Ukrainian authorities said on Sunday, as Moscow sought to capture an eastern city for the first time in months amid a string of recent setbacks on the battlefield.
A correspondent for Russia’s state-run RIA Novosti news agency said that troops with the Wagner Group, a private military force with ties to President Vladimir V. Putin, had seized the village of Ivangrad, which is close to a road on Bakhmut’s southern approach, and were fighting fierce battles in another suburb.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s forces in the east, Serhii Cherevaty, said that Bakhmut was “one of the hottest spots” in the region, and the place where “the enemy is the most aggressive, with the concentration of its maximum forces.” He told a Ukrainian television channel that 30,000 Russian personnel were deployed to the assault.
Even as Russian forces appeared to be attacking Bakhmut from several directions, it was not immediately clear what they would gain by capturing a city that months of relentless bombardment have reduced nearly to rubble. Independent military analysts have said that the campaign for Bakhmut, an industrial center that was home to 70,000 people before the war, serves little strategic purpose for Moscow because Ukrainian advances to the north have severed the city from important rail links.
There was no independent confirmation of the battlefield developments, but comments by Ukrainian officials indicated an intensifying Russian push on the city, and a growing toll for the civilians who remain there.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Ukrainian military administrator for the Donetsk region, which includes Bakhmut, said that Russian forces had killed three civilians in the region on Friday, including two in Bakhmut. The deputy mayor of Bakhmut, Oleksandr Marchenko, told the Reuters news agency on Saturday that Russia’s troops were “trying to storm the city from several directions.”
Most residents have fled Bakhmut, and New York Times journalists who visited the city in recent days observed small groups of Ukrainian soldiers gathering in abandoned buildings and firing mortars from the street.
As Ukrainian forces have held out, Bakhmut has become a symbol of Russia’s failure to achieve Mr. Putin’s objective of controlling the entire eastern Donbas area, an industrial territory where Moscow-backed separatists established breakaway republics in 2014. In April, Mr. Putin made capture of the Donbas a military priority and, last month, Russia illegally annexed the area’s two regions, Luhansk and Donetsk.
But Moscow has made little progress since July, when it captured the last cities in Luhansk. Ukrainian forces sweeping down from the reclaimed Kharkiv region in the northeast have gained ground in the Donbas while, hundreds of miles to the south, Russian troops are under pressure to hold on to Kherson, one of the first regions they captured after invading Ukraine in February.
Michael Kofman, director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for a New American Security, said on the War on the Rocks podcast last week that Russian forces had been “trying to grind their way in Bakhmut for months now,” and added, “They haven’t taken very much territory at all.”
Mr. Kofman said that the city was an important prize for the Wagner Group’s leader, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close associate of Mr. Putin, and that his stature would rise within the Kremlin if his campaign were to succeed. But his forces have suffered significant losses in Bakhmut in recent days, according to Mr. Kofman, who described the push there as a “pointless offensive” for Russia.
Several military analysts say that Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv in September deprived Bakhmut of its strategic significance, since Moscow has lost control of the railway hubs in the cities of Izium and Lyman, meaning it cannot use Bakhmut as a launchpad for attacks on other cities in Donetsk.
Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times
For weeks, Ukrainian forces have been holding the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region against an offensive led by battle-hardened mercenaries from the Wagner Group.
Even as Russian troops have fallen back on other fronts, Moscow’s forces have continued to pressure the Ukrainians in Bakhmut, leading to one of the most prolonged and bitter struggles of the war.
The city, which had a population of around 70,000 people before the war, has endured months of bombardment and near daily assaults even though it has minimal strategic value, as the Wagner Group seeks to raise its profile in Moscow.
One of the Ukrainian units defending the city is the 58th Brigade. On Friday, its members laid plans in a command bunker before joining the fighting. One of its mortar teams fired at Russian positions. Other members patrolled streets and houses.
New York Times – November 6, 2022