By ANDREW MELDRUM
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces are escalating their onslaught against Ukrainian positions around the wrecked city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials said, bringing new levels of death and devastation in the grinding, monthslong battle for control of eastern Ukraine that is part of Moscow’s wider war.
“Everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life left,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday of the scene around Bakhmut and the nearby Donetsk province city of Soledar.
“The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes,” Zelenskyy said. “This is what madness looks like.”
The Kremlin, whose invasion of its neighbor 10 1/2 months ago has suffered numerous reversals, is hungry for any victories. Russia illegally annexed Donetsk and three other Ukrainian provinces in September, but its troops have struggled to advance.
After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle heated up around Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Malyar, said Russia has thrown “a large number of storm groups” into the fight for the city. “The enemy is advancing literally on the bodies of their own soldiers and is massively using artillery, rocket launchers and mortars, hitting their own troops,” she said.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Donetsk region’s Kyiv-appointed governor, on Tuesday described the Russian attacks on Soledar and Bakhmut as relentless.
“The Russian army is reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble using all kinds of weapons in their scorched-earth tactics,” Kyrylenko said in televised remarks. “Russia is waging a war without rules, resulting in civilian deaths and suffering.”
The Moscow-backed leader of the occupied areas of Donetsk said Tuesday that Russia’s forces were “very close” to taking over Soledar. But the gains were coming “at a very high price,” Denis Pushilin told Russian state TV.
Control over the city would create “good prospects” for taking over Bakhmut, Pushilin said, as well as for a further assault on Siversk, a town further north where Ukrainian fortifications “are also quite serious.”
The U.K. Defense Ministry concurred with that appraisal of the battle developments. Russian troops alongside soldiers from the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, have advanced in recent days in Soledar and “are likely in control of most of the settlement,” the ministry tweeted Tuesday.
It said that taking Soledar, which is 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 defensive lines in depth and control over supply routes” in the area.
An exceptional feature of the fighting near Bakhmut is that some of it has taken place around entrances to disused salt mine tunnels which run for some 200 kilometers (120 miles) underneath 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 fiercely criticized in some Russian circles but who has retained Russian President Vladimir Putin’s confidence, said Tuesday that his country’s military would use its experience in Ukraine to improve combat training.
Military communications and control systems will be improved using artificial intelligence, Shoigu said, and troops will be given better tactical gear and equipment.
The Kremlin argues that it is not just fighting Ukraine but also its NATO allies. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday that NATO’s members “have become a party to the conflict, pumping weapons, technology and intelligence data into Ukraine.”
Several front-line cities in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces have witnessed intense fighting in recent months.
Together, the provinces make up the Donbas, a broad industrial region bordering Russia that Russian President Vladimir Putin identified as a focus from the war’s outset and where Moscow-backed separatists have fought since 2014.
Russia’s grinding eastern offensive captured almost all of Luhansk during the summer. Donetsk escaped the same fate, and the Russian military subsequently poured manpower and resources around Bakhmut.
Taking Bakhmut would disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to press on toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk.
Like Mariupol and other contested cities, Bakhmut has endured a long siege, spending weeks without water and power even before Moscow launched massive strikes to take out public utilities across Ukraine.
Kyrylenko, the Donetsk region’s governor, estimated more than two months ago that 90% of Bakhmut’s prewar population of over 70,000 had fled since Moscow focused on seizing the entire Donbas.
Ukraine’s presidential office said at least four civilians were killed and another 30 wounded in Russian shelling between Monday and Tuesday.
Vitaliy Kim, the governor of the southern Mykolaiv region, said Russian forces shelled the port of Ochakiv and the area around it late Monday and then again early Tuesday. He said 15 people, including a 2-year-old child, were wounded in Monday’s shelling.
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