Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russian forces are escalating their assault on Ukrainian positions around the devastated city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials said, bringing a new level of death and devastation to the months-long struggle for control of eastern Ukraine, which is part of Moscow’s broader War.
“Everything is completely destroyed. Life is almost gone,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday of the scene surrounding Bakhmut and the nearby city of Soledar in Donetsk province.
“All the land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupying forces and the scars of the strikes,” said Zelenskyy. “This is what madness looks like”
The Kremlin, whose invasion of its neighbor 10 1/2 months ago suffered numerous setbacks, is hungry for victories. Russia illegally annexed Donetsk and three other Ukrainian provinces in September, but its troops are struggling to advance.
After Ukrainian troops recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle for Bakhmut intensified.
Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Hanna Malyar said Russia threw “large numbers of stormtroopers” into battle for the city. “The enemy is literally advancing on the bodies of their own soldiers, massively using artillery, rocket launchers and mortars to hit their own troops,” she said.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Kyiv-appointed governor of Donetsk region, on Tuesday described Russian attacks on Soledar and Bakhmut as relentless.
“The Russian army is reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble using all kinds of weapons in its scorched earth tactics,” Kyrylenko said in a televised address. “Russia is waging a no-rules war, resulting in civilian deaths and suffering.”
Wounded soldiers are arriving 24/7 for emergency treatment at a Ukrainian medical stabilization center located near the front line around Bakhmut. Paramedics from the Combat Victims Center struggled for 30 minutes Monday to rescue a soldier, but his injuries were too serious.
Another soldier sustained a head injury after shrapnel pierced his helmet. Paramedics were able to stabilize his condition quickly enough to transfer him to a military hospital for further treatment.
“We are fighting to the end to save a life,” Kostnyantyn Vasylkevich, a surgeon and coordinator at the center, told The Associated Press. “Of course it hurts when it’s not possible to save her.”
The Moscow-backed leader of the Occupied Donetsk Territories said Tuesday that Russian forces are “very close” to taking over Soledar. But the gains came “at a very high price,” Denis Pushilin told Russian state television.
Taking control of the city would create “good prospects” for Bakhmut to be taken over, Pushilin said, as well as for another attack on Siversk, a city further north where Ukrainian fortifications “are also pretty serious.”
The British Ministry of Defense agreed with this assessment of the development of the battle. Russian troops along with soldiers from the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company, have been advancing in Soledar in recent days and “probably have control of most of the settlement,” the ministry tweeted on Tuesday.
It stated that the capture of Soledar, located 10 kilometers (6 miles) north of Bakhmut, was likely Moscow’s immediate military objective and part of a strategy to encircle Bakhmut.
But it added that “Ukrainian forces maintain stable defense lines in depth and control over supply routes” in the region.
An exceptional feature of the fighting near Bakhmut is that part of it took place around entrances to disused salt mines running some 200 kilometers (120 miles) below the area, the British intelligence report noted.
“Both sides are likely concerned that (the tunnels) could be used for infiltration behind their lines,” it said.
Russian Defense Minister Shoigu, whose performance has been heavily criticized in some Russian circles but who has retained the confidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Tuesday his country’s military will use its experience in Ukraine to improve combat training.
Military communication and control systems will be enhanced with artificial intelligence, Shoigu said, and troops will receive better tactical gear and equipment.
The Kremlin argues that it is fighting not only against Ukraine but also against its NATO allies. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that NATO members “have become a party to the conflict, pumping weapons, technology and intelligence data into Ukraine.”
Several frontline towns in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces have witnessed intense fighting in recent months.
Together, the provinces make up the Donbass, a sprawling industrial region bordering Russia that Russian President Vladimir Putin identified as a flashpoint from the start of the war and where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.
Russia’s grueling eastern offensive captured most of Luhansk in the summer. Donetsk escaped the same fate, and the Russian military subsequently poured manpower and resources around Bakhmut.
Taking Bakhmut would cut off Ukraine’s supply lines and open a path for Russian forces to advance towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the main Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
Like Mariupol and other embattled cities, Bakhmut endured a lengthy siege and spent weeks without water and electricity even before Moscow launched massive strikes to shut down public utilities across Ukraine.
Kyrylenko, the governor of Donetsk region, estimated more than two months ago that 90 percent of Bakhmut’s more than 70,000 residents had fled the war since Moscow focused on conquering the entire Donbass.
At least four civilians were killed and another 30 injured between Monday and Tuesday, according to the Ukrainian Presidential Office.
Vitaliy Kim, the governor of southern Mykolaiv region, said Russian troops shelled the port of Ochakiv and the surrounding area late Monday and again early Tuesday. He said 15 people, including a 2-year-old child, were injured in Monday’s shelling.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine