KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Russian forces have “destroyed” the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, while the Ukrainian military on Saturday reported firing missiles, rockets and planes in several regions of the country that Moscow is trying to conquer after months of resistance.
The final battles of Russia’s 9.5-month war in Ukraine have centered on four provinces that Russian President Vladimir Putin triumphantly – and illegally – claimed to have annexed in late September. The fighting bears witness to Russia’s struggle to establish control over these regions and Ukraine’s persistence in reclaiming them.
Zelenskyy said the situation “remains very difficult” in several frontline towns in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Together, the provinces form Donbass, a vast industrial region bordering Russia that Putin identified as a priority from the start of the war and where Moscow-backed separatists have fought since 2014.
“Bakhmut, Soledar, Maryinka, Kreminna. For a long time there is no place to live on the lands of these areas that have not been damaged by shells and fires,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video speech, naming towns that again found in the crosshairs. “The occupiers actually destroyed Bakhmut, another town in Donbass that the Russian army turned into burning ruins.
Zelenskyy did not specify what he meant by “destroyed” – and some buildings are still standing and residents are still walking the streets of the city.
Ukraine’s military headquarters reported missile attacks, around 20 airstrikes and more than 60 rocket attacks across Ukraine between Friday and Saturday. Spokesman Oleksandr Shtupun said the most active fighting took place in Bakhmut district, where more than 20 populated places came under fire. He said Ukrainian forces repelled Russian attacks in Donetsk and neighboring Lugansk.
Russia’s blistering offensive in the east succeeded in capturing almost all of Luhansk during the summer. Donetsk escaped the same fate and the Russian military has in recent weeks deployed troops and resources around Bakhmut in an attempt to encircle the city, Ukrainian analysts and officials said.
After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson nearly a month ago, the battle heated up around Bakhmut, demonstrating Putin’s desire for visible gains after weeks of sharp setbacks in Ukraine.
Taking Bakhmut would sever Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to move towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the main Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk. Russia has beaten Bakhmut with rockets for more than half a year. A ground assault accelerated after his troops forced the Ukrainians to withdraw from Luhansk in July.
But some analysts have questioned Russia’s strategic logic in the relentless pursuit of Bakhmut and surrounding areas which have also come under heavy shelling in recent weeks, and where Ukrainian officials have reported some residents living in sub – moist soils.
“The costs associated with six months of brutal, overwhelming, attrition-based fighting around #Bakhmut far outweigh any operational advantage the #Russians can gain by taking Bakhmut,” the Institute for the Study of War, a group think tank in Washington, posted to his Twitter feed on Thursday.
On Friday, Putin denounced recent comments by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said a 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine brokered by France and Germany had given Ukraine to prepare for war with Russia this year.
The deal was aimed at easing tensions after pro-Russian separatists seized Donbass territory a year earlier, sparking a war with Ukrainian forces that escalated into a war with Russia itself after the full-scale invasion on February 24.
The Ukrainian military also reported strikes in other provinces on Saturday: Kharkiv and Sumy in the northeast, Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia in the southeast and Kherson in the south. These last two, along with Donetsk and Luhansk, are the four regions that Putin claims as now Russian territory.
In Odessa, a key port city on the western Black Sea, drone attacks left much of its region without power overnight, local government chief Maxim Marchenko said.
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