Ukrainians try to hold on in devastated Bakhmut as Russians surround city

Kyiv seen as likely to retreat rather than allow soldiers to become surrounded in longest and bloodiest battle of war; Moscow defense chief makes rare visit near front line

Ukrainian servicemen fire a 105mm Howitzer toward Russian positions, near the city of Bakhmut, on March 4, 2023. (Aris Messinis/AFP)
Ukrainian servicemen fire a 105mm Howitzer toward Russian positions, near the city of Bakhmut, on March 4, 2023. (Aris Messinis/AFP)

KYIV, Ukraine — Kyiv said Sunday it was holding off attacks from Russian troops still attempting to surround Bakhmut, a now-destroyed eastern Ukrainian city that Moscow has been trying to capture for months.

Ukraine has vowed to defend “fortress Bakhmut” but it has faced Russian troops determined to take the city that has turned into a political prize as the battle drags on.

The Ukrainian general staff said “more than 130 enemy attacks” had been repelled over the past day including in Kupiansk, Lyman, Bakhmut and Avdiivka.

“The enemy continues its attempts to encircle the town of Bakhmut,” it said on Sunday morning.

Bakhmut has been mostly reduced to rubble during the longest and bloodiest battle of the invasion.

Sergiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces, said on Saturday the situation was “difficult but under control” in the city he described as a “priority target for the enemy.”

There is fighting in and around the city, the US-based Institute for the Study of War said, warning that Ukrainian supply routes were narrowing.

A Ukrainian APC drives towards frontline positions near Bakhmut, Ukraine, March 4, 2023. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

“The Russians may have intended to encircle Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, but the Ukrainian command has signaled that it will likely withdraw rather than risk an encirclement,” the institute said Saturday.

Ukraine and Russia have since the summer fiercely fought for the city, whose symbolic importance surpassed its military significance.

Pro-russian separatists in the Donetsk region posted a video purporting to show Wagner fighters in the suburbs north of Bakhmut, having taken control over the Stupki railway station.

Wagner, a private army headed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, has taken center stage in the fight for the city, which has exposed rivalries with Russia’s conventional forces.

On Friday, Prigozhin said his fighters had “practically encircled” Bakhmut, and only one road remained under Ukrainian control.

New video footage of Bakhmut shot from the air with a drone for The Associated Press shows how the longest battle of the year-long Russian invasion has turned the city of salt and gypsum mines in eastern Ukraine into a ghost town. The footage was shot February 13. (AP Photo)

Prigozhin has for weeks been publicizing the advances of his men towards the eastern city.

Prigozhin regularly posts videos of himself alongside mercenaries, on the ground or even in a fighter jet, in contrast with Russian generals criticized for shirking the frontline.

In a rare exception, Russia on Saturday released a video of defense minister Sergei Shoigu inspecting troops in frontline regions in Ukraine.

The ministry said Shoigu inspected an advance command post in the South Donetsk direction without specifying exactly where or when.

He was seen travelling in a helicopter and talking to a soldier in front of damaged buildings.

The Institute for the Study of War think tank said Shoigu went there “likely to assess the extent of Russian losses around Vugledar and the possibility of a further offensive in this direction.”

Zaporizhzhia ‘hostage’

While the epicenter of the fighting is in the east of Ukraine, the death toll from a strike this week on an apartment block in southern Zaporizhzhia has now risen to 13.

Zaporizhzhia is one of the four regions — along with Donetsk, Lugansk and Kherson — that Russia claims to have annexed but never fully controlled.

A Russian serviceman guards in an area of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station in territory under Russian military control, southeastern Ukraine, on May 1, 2022. (AP Photo, File)

Still, Moscow’s forces have held the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant since March 4, 2022.

The plant has repeatedly made headlines and revived fears of nuclear catastrophes similar to the deadly Chernobyl disaster that shook Ukraine in 1986.

The exiled mayor of Energodar, which houses the power plant, told AFP Russia uses the facility as a “nuclear shield” to for its troops and equipment.

Kyiv and Moscow have blamed each other for shelling around the plant and the International Atomic Energy Agency posted observers there.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Saturday that Russia took the nuclear power plant “hostage” a year ago, and “turned the territory of the [power plant] into a de facto military training ground.”

Zelensky on Saturday also met with European Parliament’s president Roberta Metsola, who urged for Ukraine to be allowed to begin EU membership negotiations this year.

The United States announced a new $400 million security aid package for Ukraine on Friday that featured a range of ammunition for Kyiv’s forces.

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