Ukrainian forces hung onto their positions in the ruined eastern city of Bakhmut early on Thursday under constant attack from Russian troops seeking to claim their first major victory for more than half a year.
Russia says seizing Bakhmut would open the way to fully controlling the rest of the strategic eastern Donbas industrial region, one of the main objectives of its invasion a year ago.
Delivering a regular morning roundup of the situation across the frontlines, the Ukrainian military's general staff said on Thursday that the enemy was continuing to advance toward Bakhmut and “is storming the city.”
It said Ukrainian forces were repelling attacks in Bakhmut and in other settlements in the Donetsk region that were coming under fire.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday that his forces “are keeping each sector of the front under control.”
Ukraine says Bakhmut has limited strategic value but has nevertheless put up fierce resistance. Not everyone in Ukraine is convinced that defending Bakhmut can go on indefinitely.
“I believe that sooner or later, we will probably have to leave Bakhmut. There is no sense in holding it at any cost,” Ukrainian member of parliament Serhiy Rakhmanin said on NV radio late on Wednesday.
“But for the moment, Bakhmut will be defended with several aims — firstly, to inflict as many Russian losses as possible and make Russia use its ammunition and resources,” Rakhmanin said, adding that no lines of defense should be allowed to collapse.
The battle for Bakhmut began about seven months ago, but in recent weeks Russian advances from three sides have left defenders with the only way out to the west.
Thousands of civilians remain in the ruined city, which had a pre-war population of about 70,000.
“There is a danger that our garrison in Bakhmut will be encircled,” military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said in a post on YouTube assessing the situation as “critical.”
“The enemy is attempting to sever the routes used to supply our forces in Bakhmut and halt all movement along them,” he said. “The Russian forces cannot win street battles in Bakhmut or take the city by attacking head-on. The only way they can take the city is to surround it.”
Zhdanov gave a graphic description of Russian efforts to force Ukrainian troops to abandon positions on the east bank of the Bakhmutka river.
“They are applying what can be described as colossal pressure, with wave upon wave of attacks. They bring in reinforcements in trucks and take away their wounded aboard the same trucks. This process is constant — like a conveyor belt — around the clock.”
Russian forces were also making preparations for new attacks in the central Zaporizhzhia region and on the southern front in the Kherson region, the military said. More than 40 towns and villages were shelled, it said, including the regional center of Kherson and other towns on the west bank of the Dnipro River, abandoned by Russia in November.
NBC News was unable to immediately verify the latest battlefield accounts.
The war looked set to dominate a G20 foreign ministers’ meeting in New Delhi, just as a finance ministers meeting had days earlier. European and U.S. delegates reiterated that they hold Russia responsible for the conflict, with Germany saying it would use the meeting to counter Russian “propaganda”.
Russia said it would use the meeting to tell the world who, according to Moscow, was responsible for the crises the world finds itself in.
Ukrainians and Russians traditionally mark March 1 as the start of spring and frozen ground has melted at the front, ushering in the season of sucking black mud — “bezdorizhzhia” in Ukrainian, “rasputitsa” in Russian — that has been notorious in history for destroying attacking armies.
“Winter is over. It was a very difficult one and every Ukrainian, without exaggeration, felt the difficulties,” Zelenskiy said in a video message after a meeting devoted to energy issues.
“But we managed to provide Ukraine with energy and heat. The threat to the energy system remains. And work goes on to ensure the energy system keeps functioning,” Zelenskiy said.
Russia mounted regular waves of missile strikes on power stations in what Ukraine said was a calculated strategy to destroy civilian morale.