KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces are stepping up their attack on Ukrainian positions around the city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials said, spreading further death and destruction in the shattered city.
“Everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life left,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Monday evening of the scene around Bakhmout and the nearby town of Soledar in Donetsk province.
“The whole country near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and the scars of the strikes, added Mr. Zelenskyy. This is what madness looks like.”
The Kremlin, whose invasion of its neighbor 10.5 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 forces recaptured the southern city of Kherson in November, the battle heated up around Bakhmout.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said Russia had launched “a large number of groups” in the fight for the city. “The enemy is literally advancing on the bodies of its own soldiers and massively using artillery, rocket launchers and mortars, hitting its own troops,” she said.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Kyiv-appointed Donetsk region governor, described Russian attacks on Soledar and Bakhmout on Tuesday as relentless.
“The Russian army is reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble using all sorts of weapons in its scorched earth tactics,” Kyrylenko said in televised remarks. Russia is waging a war without rules, resulting in civilian death and suffering.”
Wounded soldiers arrive around the clock for emergency care at a Ukrainian medical stabilization center near the front line around Bakhmout. Medics at the center for the wounded in action fought for 30 minutes on Monday to save a soldier, but his injuries were too serious.
Another soldier suffered head injuries after a fragment pierced his helmet. Doctors quickly stabilized his condition to transfer him to a military hospital for further treatment.
“We are fighting to the end to save a life,” surgeon and center coordinator Kostnyantyn Vasylkevich told The Associated Press. Of course, it hurts when it is not possible to save them.”
The head of the Moscow-backed occupied areas of Donetsk said on Tuesday that Russian forces were “very close” to taking control of Soledar. But the gains came “at a very high price”, warned Denis Pushilin on Russian state television.
Control of the city would create “good prospects” for taking control of Bakhmut, Mr Pushilin added, as well as for a new assault on Siversk, a city further north where the Ukrainian fortifications “are also quite serious”.
The British Ministry of Defense concurred with this assessment of developments in the battle. Russian troops alongside men from the Wagner Group, a Russian private military contractor, have advanced in Soledar in recent days and “probably control most of the city,” the ministry said on Twitter on Tuesday.
He added that the capture of Soledar, located 10 kilometers north of Bakhmout, was probably Moscow’s immediate military objective and part of a strategy to encircle Bakhmout.
But he said “Ukrainian forces maintain stable defensive lines in depth and control supply routes” in the region.
An outstanding feature of the fighting near Bakhmout is that some took place around the entrances to disused salt mine tunnels that stretch some 200 kilometers below the area, the British intelligence report noted.
“Both sides are probably worried that (the tunnels) could be used to infiltrate behind their lines,” he explained.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ― whose performance has been heavily criticized in some Russian circles but who has retained the confidence of Russian President Vladimir Putin ― said on Tuesday that his country’s military would use its experience in Ukraine to improve combat training.
Military communications and control systems will be improved with artificial intelligence, Shoigu said, and troops will be provided with better equipment.
The Kremlin says it is not only fighting Ukraine but also its NATO allies. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday that NATO members “have become a party to the conflict, injecting weapons, technology and intelligence data into Ukraine.”
Ukraine’s presidential office said at least four civilians were killed and 30 others injured 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 on Monday evening and then again early on Tuesday. He added that 15 people, including a 2-year-old child, were injured in Monday’s shelling.