Ukraine’s future depends on the outcome of the battle raging around Bakhmut and other key cities and towns in the east of the country, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said.
Zelenskyy said in a video address late on Monday that Ukraine’s future relied on destroying Russian forces attacking Bakhmut and other war-torn areas in the country’s eastern Donetsk region.
“It is very tough in the east, very painful. We need to destroy the enemy’s military might, and we will,” Zelenskyy said.
“Bilohorivka and Marinka, Avdiivka and Bakhmut, Vuhledar and Kamyanka,” Zelenskyy said, naming the key battlegrounds, adding, “and all other places where our future is being decided. Where our future, the future of all Ukrainians, is being fought for.”
“I am grateful to each and every one who is now in combat…. to everyone who never lets down those who are next to them on the frontline.”
Russia has said that capturing Bakhmut opens a path to taking control of the entire Donetsk region, a central war aim for Moscow.
After weeks of grinding and bloody battles, the Ukrainian military says it has not retreated from Bakhmut and is intent on staying to fight in order to inflict severe losses on the Russian assault force, which is said to have thrown a huge number of soldiers into the fight without regards for casualties.
Russian forces led by the Wagner mercenary army have captured Bakhmut’s east but have so far failed to encircle the city despite making announcements over recent weeks that a Ukrainian defeat was imminent.
NATO also warned last week that Bakhmut could fall within a matter of days.
Ukraine’s forces in continuing to fight have depleted and worn down Russian forces in Bakhmut, which has also diverted Russia’s focus and its firepower from launching a planned counterattack in the spring, Ukrainian officials say.
A Ukrainian counterattack to relieve Bakhmut is increasingly expected.
According to Russian reports, several Ukrainian brigades were massed between the cities of Sloviansk and Kostyantynivka for this purpose. So far, however, the mud that is typical for this time of year as winter snow melts in Ukraine has not allowed for quick advances off paved roads.
Ukrainian soldiers deployed near Kreminna, north of Bakhmut, said on Monday they were repelling intensified Russian attacks.
In a forested area some 8km (5 miles) from the front in Bakhmut, Ukrainian artillery boomed, firing at Russian positions to the northeast while explosions rumbled constantly in the distance as the heavy fighting ground on.
Mykhailo Anest, a 35-year-old Ukrainian medic, told the Reuters news agency that there was still lots of artillery and mortar fire but that the fighting had lessened compared with last month.
“Two or three weeks ago the fighting was at its peak but it has calmed down a bit,” he said.
The battle for Bakhmut is also being fought out on social media as Russia spreads disinformation, Kyiv has claimed.
The Ukrainian Centre for Strategic Communications said on Monday that Russia was spreading advertisements on Facebook about alleged successes of Russian troops through anonymous channels.
Among other things, it claims that the battle for Bakhmut is “lost from the Ukrainian point of view” and that “the West does not believe in Ukraine”.
Other posts include the US being said to reduce its arms supplies because “Ukrainian authorities have been caught stealing”.
“The occupiers want to undermine Ukrainian society’s trust in the government by claiming that the battle for Bakhmut is lost and that our allies have left us to fend for ourselves,” the communications authority wrote.
Bakhmut officials said Monday that there were still more than 4,000 people living in the city, including 33 children.