The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group said on Wednesday his forces had taken full control of the eastern part of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut as one of the bloodiest battles of the year-long war ground on amid the ruins.
If the claim is true, it would mean Russian forces control nearly half the city in their costly push to secure their first big victory in several months.
Ukrainian defenders remained defiant, however. Last week they appeared to be preparing for a tactical retreat from Bakhmut, but military and political leaders are now speaking of hanging on to positions and inflicting as many casualties as possible on the Russian assault force.
In Stockholm, Ukraine’s defence minister said Kyiv urgently needed huge supplies of artillery shells to mount a general counter-offensive against Russia’s invasion army, urging EU members to support an Estonian plan for joint procurement of munitions.
“We need to move forward as soon as possible,” Oleksii Reznikov told reporters before an EU defence ministers’ meeting.
The General Staff of the Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in its Wednesday morning report: “The enemy, despite significant losses, … continues to storm the town of Bakhmut.”
Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin said his fighters, who have been spearheading the Russian campaign to seize Bakhmut, had now captured the city’s east.
“Everything east of the Bakhmutka River is completely under the control of Wagner,” Prigozhin said on Telegram.
The river bisects Bakhmut city, which sits on the edge of a swathe of the Donetsk region that is already largely under Russian occupation. The city centre is on the west side of the river.
Prigozhin has issued premature success claims before and Reuters was not able to verify his latest one.
Ukrainian military statements said earlier there may be “conditions” in Bakhmut for a Ukrainian offensive.
“The main task of our troops in Bakhmut is to grind the enemy’s fighting capability, to bleed their combat potential,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told public television on Tuesday.
Russia, which claims to have annexed nearly 20% of Ukraine’s territory, has made progress in recent weeks around Bakhmut, but its winter offensive has yielded no significant gains in assaults further north and south.
It says that taking Bakhmut would be a step towards seizing the industrial Donbas region, made up of Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Western analysts say Bakhmut has little strategic value.
But Kyiv says the losses suffered by Russia there could determine the course of the war, with decisive battles expected when the weather is better and Ukraine receives more military aid, including heavy battle tanks.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said in comments on Ukrainian television that Russia’s strategy in east Ukraine remained the same – to take the remaining areas of Donetsk and Luhansk that it does not control.
“As for tactics – they understand that they are not able to make any rapid advance, so they have one tactic – they advance where they can. If they see that there is any success somewhere, they throw all the reserves into it,” he said.
“So far, in the directions of Kreminna, Svatove and Bilohorivka (all northwest of the regional capital Luhansk) they have had no strategic successes and are making no progress.”
The months of warfare in the east have been among the deadliest and most destructive since Russia invaded in February last year, adding Bakhmut’s name to a list of devastated cities such as Mariupol, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.
A Ukrainian military drone showed the scale of destruction in Bakhmut, filming apartment blocks on fire and smoke billowing from residential areas.
Iryna Vereshchuk, a deputy Ukrainian premier, said fewer than 4,000 civilians – including 38 children – out of a pre-war population of some 70,000 remained in the city, which is now largely in ruins after months of bombardment.
“The situation in the city is difficult. The enemy actively storms our positions, however they don’t have any success and suffer colossal losses,” a Ukrainian border guard said in a video released by the State Border Service.
“Probably out of spite, they tried to blow up two bridges. But we still receive everything that we need. The city stands, because Bakhmut was, is, and will be Ukraine. We’ll stay in touch.”
The Ukrainian General Staff also said Russian forces made more than 30 unsuccessful attacks over the past day near Orikhovo-Vasylivka alone, 20 km (12 miles) northwest of Bakhmut. They shelled the areas around 10 settlements along the Bakhmut section of the front line, it said.
In Stockholm, EU defence ministers were meeting to discuss further arms supplies to Kyiv. Shipments of battle tanks and artillery are already in the pipeline but it could take months before they can be put into action on the front lines.
Ukraine’s Reznikov said Kyiv wanted 90,000 to 100,000 artillery rounds per month. Ukraine is burning through shells faster than its allies can make them.
He said he supported a proposal by Estonia for EU countries to club together to buy 1 million 155-millimetre shells for Ukraine this year at a cost of 4 billion euros ($4.22 billion).
German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius said it would take time for industry to ramp up capacity to meet higher demand.
“We have to face the truth: Just because we all place more orders does not mean there is more ammunition. It has to be produced before it can be delivered,” he said.
In other developments, German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius on Wednesday warned against reaching premature conclusions on who was responsible for blowing up the Nord Stream pipelines, suggesting the attack last year could have been a “false flag” operation to blame Ukraine.
Pistorius was speaking after a New York Times report, citing intelligence reviewed by U.S. officials, said a pro-Ukrainian group may be behind the blasts.