Russia continues to operate in eastern Ukraine; Bakhmut “destroyed”

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces have turned the east Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in ruins, President Volodymyr Zelensky said, as Ukraine’s military on Saturday reported rocket, missile and air strikes in multiple parts of the country Moscow is trying to seize after months of resistance.

The latest battles of Russia’s war for 9 and a half months in Ukraine are centered on four provinces that Russian President Vladimir Putin triumphantly – and illegally – claimed to have annexed in late September. The fighting shows Russia’s struggle for establishing control over these regions and Ukraine’s persistence in getting them back.

Zelensky said the situation “remains very difficult” in several frontline towns in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Together, the provinces form the Donbass, an expansive industrial region bordering Russia that Putin defined as a focus since the start of the war and where Moscow-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

“Bahmut, Soledar, Marinka, Cremina. “For a long time, there was not a living place left on the ground in these areas that was not damaged by shells and fire,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address, naming cities that were once again in the crosshairs. “The occupiers actually destroyed Bakhmut, another Donbas city that the Russian army reduced to burnt ruins.

Some buildings still stand in Bakhmut, and the remaining residents still walk the streets. But like Mariupol and other contested cities, it endured a long siege and spent weeks without water and electricity even before Moscow launched a massive crackdown to shut down Ukraine’s utilities.

Donetsk Oblast Governor Pavlo Kirilenko estimated seven weeks ago that 90 percent of the city’s prewar population of more than 70,000 had fled in the months since Moscow focused on capturing all of Donbas.

Ukraine’s military general staff reported rocket attacks, about 20 airstrikes and more than 60 missile attacks in Ukraine between Friday and Saturday. Spokesman Alexander Stupun said the most active fighting was in the Bakhmut region, where more than 20 settlements were shelled. He said Ukrainian forces had repelled Russian attacks in Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk.

Russia’s intensified eastern offensive managed to capture almost all of Luhansk in the summer. Donetsk escaped the same fateand the Russian military in recent weeks has poured manpower and resources around Bakhmut in an effort to encircle the city, analysts and Ukrainian officials said.

After Ukrainian forces captured the southern city of Kherson nearly a month ago, the battle around Bakhmut has heated up, demonstrating Putin’s desire for visible gains after weeks of clear setbacks in Ukraine.

The capture of Bakhmut would cut Ukraine’s supply lines and open a route for Russian forces to push towards Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, key Ukrainian bastions in Donetsk. Russia fired missiles at Bakhmut for more than half the year. The ground offensive accelerated after her troops forced the Ukrainians to withdraw from Luhansk in July.

But some analysts have questioned Russia’s strategic logic in its relentless pursuit of Bakhmut and surrounding areas, which have also come under intense shelling in recent weeks and where Ukrainian officials have reported that some residents are living in damp basements.

“The costs associated with six months of brutal, grueling and attrition-based fighting around #Bakhmut far outweigh any operational advantage the #Russians might gain from capturing Bakhmut,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, posted in his Twitter feed on Thursday.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that Russian troops also continued their offensive in Donbass in the direction of the Donetsk city of Liman, which is 65 kilometers (40 miles) north of Bakhmut. According to the ministry, they “manage to occupy more advantageous positions for further development.”

Russian forces first occupied the city in May, but withdrew in early October. Ukrainian authorities said at the time that they had found landmines on the bodies of dead Russian soldiers that had been set to explode when someone tried to clear the corpses, as well as the bodies of civilians killed by shelling or dying of lack of food and medicine.

On Friday, Putin criticized recent comments by former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said the 2015 peace deal for eastern Ukraine negotiated by France and Germany had bought Ukraine time to prepare for war with Russia this year.

That deal was intended to cool tensions after pro-Russian separatists seized territory in the Donbas a year earlier, sparking a war with Ukrainian forces that escalated into a war with Russia itself after the February 24 full-scale invasion.

The Ukrainian army on Saturday also reported strikes in other provinces: Kharkiv and Sumy in the northeast, Dnipropetrovsk in central Ukraine, Zaporozhye in the southeast and Kherson in the south. The latter two, along with Donetsk and Luhansk, are the four regions Putin claims are now Russian territory.

A month ago, Russian troops withdrew from the western side of the Dnieper River where it crosses Kherson province, allowing Ukrainian forces to declare the region’s capital liberated. But the Russians still held most of the countryside and continued to attack from their news positions across the river.

Writing on Telegram, Zelensky’s deputy chief of staff, Kirylo Tymoshenko, said two civilians had been killed and eight others wounded during dozens of mortar, rocket and artillery attacks over the previous day. Residential areas, a hospital, shops, warehouses and critical infrastructure in the Kherson region were affected, he said.

To the west, overnight drone attacks left much of Odesa province, including its Black Sea port city of the same name, without electricity, regional governor Maxim Marchenko said. Several power facilities were destroyed at once, leaving all customers except hospitals, maternity homes, boiler houses and pumping stations without electricity, electric company DTEK said on Saturday.

Citing the sheer “scale of the destruction,” the company said on Facebook that emergency crews were deployed and would begin work to restore power as soon as the military gave permission. Earlier on Saturday, Ukraine’s Southern Operational Command reported that Russian troops attacked energy facilities in the Odesa region with explosive drones overnight.


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