KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces are escalating their onslaught against Ukrainian positions around the wrecked eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials said, bringing new levels of death and devastation in the grinding, months-long battle.
“Everything is completely destroyed, there is almost no life left,” Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said late Monday of the scene around Bakhmut and the nearby town 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.”
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Russia has thrown “a large number of storm groups” into the battle.
“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.
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 U.K. Defense Ministry tweeted Monday.
It said that taking Soledar, 6 miles north of Bakhmut, is 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 been around entrances to disused salt mine tunnels which run for some 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.
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.
After Ukrainian forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson last November, the battle heated up 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.
The Donetsk region’s governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, 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.