Ukraine reinforces Bakhmut defenses amid relentless Russian assault Ukraine

Ukraine is reinforcing its positions around Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region after days of relentless assaults by Russian forces spearheaded by the Wagner mercenary group.

Bakhmut and the neighboring town of Soledar have been the focus of intense efforts by Moscow to make progress in an area where Russian forces have been trying desperately to advance since early summer.

In recent days, Russian attacks have focused on Soledar in an apparent effort to cut off the town. “The enemy again made a desperate attempt to storm the city of Soledar from different directions and threw the most professional units of the Wagnerites into battle,” Ukraine’s military said on Monday, echoing comments made by Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on Sunday.

The capture of Soledar, which lies to the north-east of Bakhmut, would put Ukrainian forces in the area in danger of being encircled and offer Russia a potential avenue of approach against that city.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary group, which has been trying to capture Bakhmut and Soledar for months at the cost of many lives on both sides, said on Saturday its significance lies in the network of mineral mines there. “It’s not only [has the ability to hold] a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 meters, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about,” he said.

Military analysts say the strategic military benefit for Moscow would be limited. A US official has said Prigozhin, a powerful ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is eyeing the salt and gypsum from the mines.

In nightly video remarks on Sunday, Zelenskiy said Bakhmut and Soledar were held despite widespread destruction after months of attacks. “Our soldiers are constantly repelling Russian attempts to advance,” he said. In Soledar “things are very difficult”, he added.

Smoke rises after shelling in Soledar. The capture of the town could cut off Ukrainian forces. Photograph: Roman Chop/AP

In an evacuee center near Kramatorsk, Olha, 60, said she had fled Soledar after moving from apartment to apartment as each was destroyed in tank battles. “All of last week we couldn’t come outside. Everyone was running around, soldiers with automatic weapons, screaming,” said Olha, who gave only her first name.

“There isn’t one house left intact,” she said. “Apartments were burning, breaking in half.” Serhiy Cherevatyi, a Ukrainian military spokesman for the eastern region, said the situation could be stabilized.

“There are brutal and bloody battles there – 106 shellings in one day,” he said on Ukrainian television. Our troops in Soledar have been allocated additional forces and means for this purpose and everything is being done to improve the operational situation.”

Recent aerial images from the Bakhmut-Soldar sector have shown heavily cratered battlefields scattered with the bodies of fallen Russian troops, as Moscow has tried to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses by weight of numbers and persistence, leading to an increase in Russian combat deaths.

Analysts have suggested that, despite speculation that Russia may be preparing to forcibly conscript up to 500,000 more troops, Putin’s conscription strategy may be contributing to the increase in Russian deaths.

In his weekly analysis of the situation in Ukraine, Phillips P O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, suggested the high attrition for Russian forces in Ukraine’s east did not bode well for any new mobilization.

Calling the mass mobilization in the autumn Putin’s “second army”, O’Brien argues that “raw numbers of soldiers” is unlikely to be decisive on its own.

“Modern industrial war requires top-line equipment and well-trained soldiers far more than masses of poorly motivated conscripts.

“We can see that in the Russian experience so far. Putin’s second army, much of it formed since the conscription in September, has actually performed worse than the more professional force the Russians started the war with. Since September, Russian soldiers have died in huge numbers and achieved only small gains.”

The latest fighting came as strong doubts emerged over Russian claims to have killed 600 Ukrainian soldiers in barracks in Kramatorsk, with journalists visiting the city unable to find evidence of large-scale casualties.

A Reuters team visited two college dormitories that Moscow said had been temporarily housing Ukrainian personnel and which it had targeted as revenge for a new year attack that killed scores of Russian soldiers and caused an outcry in Russia.

Neither dormitory appeared to have been directly hit or seriously damaged. There were no obvious signs that soldiers had been living there and no sign of bodies or traces of blood.

However, the Kremlin said it was confident its defense ministry was correct when it said 600 Ukrainian service personnel had been “destroyed” in the attack. Some pro-Kremlin military bloggers criticized the claims.

“Let’s talk about ‘fraud’,” wrote one prominent pro-war military blogger on the Telegram messaging app, who posts under the name of Military Informant and who has more than half a million subscribers.

“It is not clear to us who, and for what reason, decided that 600 Ukrainian soldiers died inside, all at once, if the building was not actually hit (even the light remained on).”

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