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Satellite images show staggering destruction from bitter fighting in Ukraine's east

Devastation is clear when comparing pictures of the same area around Soledar and Bakhmut taken in August and again this month.

Seen from space, the war is carved into Ukraine's earth.

As battles rage in and around the city of Bakhmut, a strategically important city on the war’s front lines, satellite images released by Maxar Technologies, a U.S. defense contractor headquartered in Colorado, show the devastation by comparing the same areas pictured in August and then earlier this week.

Buildings lie in ruins and bomb craters pockmark the ground: The destruction caused by months of fierce fighting is clear.

If Russian forces were to take Bakhmut it would amount to the Kremlin’s first major battlefield success in months, after a string of embarrassing and damaging setbacks.

The area sits in the Donetsk province, one of four that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally claimed to have annexed last year.

Russian troops escalated their assault on defensive positions, with bitter fighting taking place around the nearby salt mining town of Soledar — a town of barely 10,000 inhabitants before the war — as both sides attempt to take control of the region.

After some of the war’s most intense combat, Moscow’s defense ministry said Friday it was in control of Soledar, though Ukrainian officials denied that the town had fallen.

NBC News could not independently verify either claim.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on January 11 fighting was still raging in a key eastern frontline city that a Russian mercenary group earlier said it controlled.
Fields and roads east of Bakhmut, which sits in the Donetsk province, covered by bomb craters on Saturday. Maxar Technologies / AFP - Getty Images

Fighters from the Wagner group, Russia’s most powerful private military company, have also been heavily involved in fighting in the area, where schools, apartment blocks and farm buildings have been badly damaged or destroyed.

Bomb craters also scar the landscape in the region, which has become a focal point of the conflict after Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive in the south. 

On some days, both sides have exchanged several thousand artillery rounds in the area, in trench fighting described as “savage” and compared to the carnage of World War I by a U.S. military official in a background briefing to journalists earlier this week.

Bakhmut has become the latest symbol of Ukraine’s defiance against Russian aggression, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy mentioning the struggle to hold the city in his address to the U.S. Congress in December. During the visit, he gave then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers on the front lines there.

Taking the city would not only be a morale boost for the Kremlin's forces, but it would disrupt Ukrainian supply lines and open a route for Russia to press toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, key strongholds.

And even if Russian forces did capture Bakhmut, many analysts are unsure that would prove a turning point.