Kyiv, Ukraine –
Russian forces have turned the town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine into rubble, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, while the Ukrainian military on Saturday reported hits from 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 Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in eastern Ukraine. 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 were not damaged by shells and fires,” Zelenskyy said in his video speech nocturnal, naming cities that have again found themselves in the crosshairs. “The occupiers actually destroyed Bakhmut, another town in Donbass which the Russian army turned into burnt ruins.”
Some buildings remain standing in Bakhmut, and the remaining residents still roam the streets. But like Mariupol and other disputed cities, it endured a long siege and went weeks without water or electricity even before Moscow launched massive strikes to cut public services across Ukraine.
Donetsk region governor Pavlo Kyrylenko estimated seven weeks ago that 90% of the city’s pre-war population of more than 70,000 had fled in the months since Moscow focused on seizing the whole of Donbass.
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 said. a think tank in Washington, posted to its Twitter feed on Thursday.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that Russian troops had also continued their Donbass offensive towards the Donetsk town of Lyman, located 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of Bakhmut. According to the ministry, they “succeeded in taking more advantageous positions for further advancement.”
Russian forces first occupied the city in May, but withdrew in early October. Ukrainian authorities said at the time that they had found mines on the bodies of dead Russian soldiers that would explode when someone tried to extricate the corpses, as well as on the bodies of civilian residents killed by shelling or who died from lack of food and medicine.
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.
A month ago, Russian troops withdrew to the west side of the Dniper River, where it crosses Kherson province, allowing Ukrainian forces to declare the region’s capital liberated. But the Russians still occupied the majority of the province and continued to attack from their new positions across the river.
Writing on Telegram, Zelenskyy’s deputy bureau chief Kyrylo Tymoshenko said two civilians died and eight others were injured in dozens of mortar, rocket and artillery attacks the day before. Residential areas, a hospital, shops, warehouses and critical infrastructure in the Kherson region were damaged, he said.
To the west, drone attacks have left much of Odessa province, including its namesake port city on the Black Sea, without power, regional governor Maxim Marchenko said. Several energy installations were destroyed at the same time, leaving all customers except hospitals, maternity wards, boiler rooms and pumping stations without electricity, the electricity company DTEK said on Saturday.
Citing “the scale of the destruction”, the company said on Facebook that emergency teams had been deployed and would start working to restore power as soon as the military gave permission. Earlier on Saturday, Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command said Russian troops attacked energy facilities in the Odessa region with explosive drones overnight.
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