© Reuters. An armoured military vehicle speeds through Chasiv Yar during heavy fighting at the fronttline of Bakhmut and Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, April 9, 2023. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach
By Pavel Polityuk
KYIV (Reuters) -Russian forces are pressing attacks in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, focusing on two cities and pounding Ukrainian positions with air strikes and artillery barrages, Kyiv said on Monday.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces said the Russians were destroying buildings and positions in besieged Bakhmut in what he called “scorched earth” tactics.
Russia’s assault on Bakhmut, a small city in Donetsk at the edge of a chunk of Russian-controlled territory, has for months been the focus of the biggest battle of the war, now in its second year.
Ukraine’s Armed Forces General Staff said on Sunday fighting was heaviest along the western approaches to Bakhmut. The Russians were also targeting the city of Avdiivka, it said.
On Monday, ground forces commander Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi said the defence of Bakhmut continued.
“The situation is difficult but controllable,” he said in comments quoted by Ukraine’s Media Military Centre.
Moscow is sending in special forces and airborne assault units to help their attack as members of Russia’s private mercenary Wagner group are now exhausted, Syrskyi said. Wagner mercenaries have spearheaded the Russian assault on Bakhmut which has left it largely in ruins.
“The enemy switched to the so-called scorched earth tactics from Syria. It is destroying buildings and positions with air strikes and artillery fire,” Syrskyi said.
Reuters could not verify the battlefield accounts.
Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces had made unsuccessful advances on areas west of Bakhmut and at least 10 towns and villages had come under Russian shelling. The Russians had also made no headway in attacks on Avdiivka, it said.
Donetsk is one of four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine that Russia declared annexed last year and is seeking to fully occupy in what appears to be a shift in its war aims after failing to overrun the country soon after its invasion in February 2022.
Western analysts say both sides have been losing large numbers of troops in the battle for Bakhmut, a regional transport and logistics hub prior to the war.
Control of Bakhmut could allow Russia to directly target Ukrainian defensive lines in Chasiv Yar in the east and open the way for its forces to advance on two bigger cities in the Donetsk region – Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
While Ukraine has said it wants to inflict as many casualties as possible on the Russian forces as its prepares its own counteroffensive, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy last week acknowledged that if troops risked being encircled they could be pulled back.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said Russian forces controlled the centre of Bakhmut, with much of their assault now focusing on the railway station.
“There is heavy fighting in the city centre and the enemy is gradually moving toward the western outskirts,” Zhdanov said.
Britain’s Defence Ministry said that over the last seven days, Russia also appeared to have increased its armoured assaults around the town of Marinka, also in Donetsk province.
“Russia continues to give a high priority to resourcing operations in the broader Donetsk sector, including the Marinka and Avdiivka areas, expending significant resources for minimal gains,” it said.
PALM SUNDAY ATTACKS
In a video address on Sunday night, Zelenskiy denounced Russian air strikes coinciding with the observance of Orthodox Palm Sunday.
Ukraine’s State Emergencies Service said a 50-year-old man and his 11-year-old daughter were killed after Russian forces struck a residential building in Zaporizhzhia, in the southeast.
A woman identified as the wife and mother of the victims was pulled from under the rubble.
“This is how the terrorist state marks Palm Sunday,” Zelenskiy said in his address. “This is how Russia places itself in even greater isolation from the world.”
The majority of Ukraine’s 41 million people are Orthodox Christians who celebrate Easter next weekend, as does Russia.
Pope Francis, who has been critical of Russia’s war, prayed for peace during Easter events in the Vatican on Sunday.
“Help the beloved Ukrainian people on their journey towards peace, and shed the light of Easter upon the people of Russia,” he said.
In other action, Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had destroyed a depot with 70,000 tonnes of fuel near Zaporizhzhia.
The forces destroyed Ukrainian army warehouses storing missiles, ammunition and artillery in the regions of Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk, the ministry said.
Ukraine also reported widespread Russian shelling in northern regions. Officials in the south said Russian aircraft had used guided bombs against towns in the Kherson region.