Russian forces are attacking Bakhmut from three directions in a persistent attempt to encircle Ukrainian troops, the Ukrainian military said on Sunday, maintaining pressure on the battered city that has become the focal point of Moscow’s wide-ranging offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The battle for Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donbas region began last summer and Ukrainian soldiers have held out there even as Russian forces have gradually captured surrounding territory, nearly cutting off the city. In recent weeks, Moscow has ramped up an offensive to seize the whole of Donbas, sending troops that it mobilized last fall into the fight.
In an indication of the severity of the fighting in the east of the country and its broad geographical reach, the Ukrainian military’s General Staff said on Sunday that its forces had repelled 130 Russian attacks on Saturday.
“The adversary continues its attempts to encircle the town of Bakhmut,” it said, listing attacks on a string of small towns and settlements near Bakhmut.
The fighting on Saturday killed two civilians in Bakhmut, the head of the regional Ukrainian military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Sunday in a post on the Telegram social messaging app. Seven civilians were wounded in the region, he added.
Before the war, Bakhmut had a population of about 70,000, but the Ukrainian authorities say that only a few thousand civilians remain. They have been working to evacuate those who have stayed, but the task has become harder as the roads out of the city have increasingly come under threat.
Moscow has been advancing on Bakhmut from territory it already holds to the east of the city, taking towns and villages that have more recently enabled it to attack the city from the north and south.
Russia has rushed large numbers of troops to the area around Bakhmut, including many newly mobilized recruits. Ukraine has also sent reinforcements to the battle. Both sides have sustained heavy casualties.
Military experts say that Russia’s offensive is being fought at five or six points along a front line that stretches about 100 miles from the town of Kreminna in Luhansk to Vuhledar in Donetsk, where Moscow suffered heavy losses in a tank battle in recent weeks.
While Russian forces have not made significant territorial gains in their renewed offensive, they have been tightening the claw around Bakhmut. Last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine vowed that Ukraine would not give up on Bakhmut, calling it “our fortress.” But in recent days, Ukrainian officials have been preparing the public for the possibility of a retreat.
Mick Ryan, a military analyst and retired Australian Army major general who is a fellow at the Lowy Institute, a think tank based in Sydney, wrote on Sunday that Russian forces, despite heavy losses, had “slowly but surely begun to take ground in and around Bakhmut.” He said in a post on Substack that “Russia is strangling (but not yet stopping) the Ukrainian capacity to defend the city.”
That sentiment was echoed by the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based research group. It said that Russian forces “will not likely be able to encircle the city soon,” but that by closing in on the roads that are the vital lifelines of supply for Ukrainian fighters, they could force Kyiv’s forces to abandon their defensive positions and withdraw.
If Russia does eventually capture Bakhmut, it would be the culmination of one of the longest-running and bloodiest battles of the war, but questions would remain about Russia’s ability to sustain its offensive and gain further ground in eastern Ukraine.
“The reality is that if the Russians do capture Bakhmut, they are seizing rubble,” Mr. Ryan said. “It is a town with minimal strategic importance, with almost no remaining infrastructure to support an occupying force. That the Russians have invested so much in its capture speaks volumes about their poor strategy in this war.”
Elsewhere on the long front line, Moscow has continued to shell civilian areas in Ukraine over the past few weeks as its offensive has ramped up, often with devastating consequences.
Russian shelling killed a woman and two children on Sunday in the village of Poniativka in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, according to the regional authorities and Andriy Yermak, head of the president’s office in Ukraine. The prosecutor’s office in the Kharkiv region said a husband and wife were killed when their vehicle was struck by artillery fire. And the death toll from a missile strike on an apartment building on Thursday in the city of Zaporizhzhia in southern Ukraine rose to 13, Ukraine’s state emergency services said Sunday on Telegram.
Ukraine is expected to launch its own offensive in the coming weeks, aiming to expand the territorial gains it made last fall in the northeast and in the south.
The ultimate goal of Ukraine’s spring push, according to a senior Ukrainian official and military experts, could be to sever the land bridge in the south of the country between Moscow’s forces in Russian-occupied Crimea and other territory that Russia has seized. But experts also caution that it is difficult to predict the precise location of Kyiv’s next drive.
Russian and Ukrainian forces have spent months preparing for their renewed offensives. As Ukraine awaits the arrival of new, sophisticated weapons from Western allies, the government in Kyiv could gain an advantage because Russia has effectively launched its offensive first, according to Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research institute focused on national security.
“Ukraine is much better off receiving this Russian offensive, having the Russian military exhaust itself, then launching their major operation later in the spring perhaps, very likely, in the south in Zaporizhzhia,” he said last month on the War on the Rocks podcast.