Artillery vehicle

Russia seeks good news in eastern Ukraine with Bakhmut artillery strikes

BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) – Russian soldiers bombarding a town in eastern Ukraine with artillery are slowly closing in their bid to seize Bakhmut, which remained in Ukrainian hands during the war eight months despite Moscow’s goal of capturing the entire Donbass region bordering Russia.

While much of the fighting over the past month has been in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, the escalating battle around Bakhmut demonstrates Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire for gains visible after weeks of sharp setbacks in Ukraine.

Taking Bakhmut would sever Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to move towards Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, the main Ukrainian strongholds in Donetsk Province. Pro-Moscow separatists have controlled parts of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk province since 2014.

SEE MORE : Ukraine warns that Russia is preparing a dirty bomb attack

Before invading Ukraine, Putin recognized the independence of the self-declared republics from the Russian-backed separatists. Last month, it illegally annexed Donetsk, Luhansk and two other provinces that Russian forces occupied or largely occupied.

Russia beat Bakhmut with rockets for more than five months. The ground assault accelerated after his troops forced the Ukrainians to withdraw from Luhansk in July. The line of contact is now on the outskirts of town. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian military company, would lead the charge.

Russia’s protracted campaign for Bakhmut exposes Moscow’s “madness”, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in an overnight address to the nation this week.

“Day after day, for months, they drove people there to their deaths, concentrating the maximum power of artillery strikes there,” Zelenskyy said.

The bombing killed at least three people between Wednesday and Thursday, according to local authorities. Four more people died between Thursday and Friday in the Donetsk region, the province’s Ukrainian governor reported as Russian troops continued their attacks on Bakhmut and Avdiivka, a small town about 90 kilometers (55 miles) to the south which also remains under Ukrainian control.

READ MORE: Ukraine seeks to retake Kherson, Russia threatens Western commercial satellites used by military

Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said the civilian population was increasingly suffering as the region became an active war zone.

“The civilians who remain in the area live in constant fear without heat or electricity,” Kyrylenko said in televised remarks. “Their enemy is not only the Russian guns but also the cold.”

Russia needs a victory in Bakhmut given that it is losing control of large swaths of the northeast Kharkiv region to a Ukrainian counteroffensive last month and its deteriorating position in Kherson . The areas were among the first captured by the Russian military after the invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

“Russia is suffering defeats at all levels. … They need the optics of some sort of offensive victory to appease critics at home and to show the Russian public that this war is still planned,” said Samuel Ramani, a research associate at the Royal United Services Institute, a body defense and defense. London-based security think tank.

The Wagner Group played a prominent role in the war, and human rights organizations accused its hired soldiers of committing atrocities. Their deployment around Bakhmut reflects the city’s strategic importance to Moscow. However, it is unclear whether the mercenaries made many tangible gains, according to Ramani.

“We are seeing a situation where the Wagner group is quite effective at creating terror among local residents, but much less effective at capturing and retaining territory,” he said. At best, they are gaining 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) a week towards Bakhmut, he said.

SEE MORE : How important is Russia attacking Ukraine with Iranian drones?

While in the city this week, Associated Press reporters saw cars burned, buildings destroyed and people struggling to survive in a cacophony of constant bombardment. Bakhmut has been without electricity and water for a month, and residents worry about heating their homes as temperatures drop.

“We hoped that this (war) would end or that we would have conditions that would allow us to live. But since last month the conditions have been terrible,” said resident Leonid Tarasov.

Few stores are open. The AP saw people using firewood for cooking in the streets and drawing water from wells.

Bakhmut had a population of around 73,000 before the war, but around 90% left the city, according to Kyrylenko, the governor of the Donetsk region.

Some of those who remained have asked in recent days to be evacuated from areas that are now too dangerous for volunteers or soldiers because of the fighting, said Roman Zhylenkov, a volunteer with the local aid group Vostok-SOS.

Others feel trapped.

“People who left moved to stay with their children or siblings. They had places to go,” Ilona Ierhilieieva said as she cooked soup over an open fire by the side of the road. “But we have no place to go. That’s why we are here.