Ukraine and Russia said they were inflicting heavy losses on each other’s forces in the battle for Bakhmut, as more deadly shelling hit eastern Ukrainian regions and Kyiv urged the German government to step up supplies of ammunition to its military.
Russian mercenary group Wagner claims to hold about half of Bakhmut, a road and rail hub in Ukraine’s partly occupied Donetsk province that has been devastated by months of fighting, but Kyiv says its troops in the city are severely weakening some of Moscow’s best units while allowing the Ukrainian military to prepare for a big spring counteroffensive.
“The real heroes now are the defenders who hold the eastern front on their shoulders,” said Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces. “It is necessary to gain time to accumulate reserves and start the spring counteroffensive, which is not far off,” he added.
Kyiv announced last week that reinforcements would be sent to Bakhmut, and says supply routes linking the city to government-controlled areas to the west are still open.
“Our engineers and unit commanders are doing everything so that the defenders of Bakhmut have the necessary ammunition, medicines and food, and so they can transport our wounded to safe places from there,” said Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command.
[ Ukraine ‘buying time’ in Bakhmut ahead of counteroffensive ]
Russia says its forces are gradually taking control of Bakhmut and will use it as a staging post to seize the rest of the Donetsk region, one of four Ukrainian provinces that the Kremlin decreed to be its sovereign territory this year despite only occupying part of each of them. Moscow also illegally annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Kyiv in 2014.
“Assault groups have taken up more advantageous positions on the territory of the [Bakhmut] metalworking plant in the industrial zone,” said Andrei Marochko, a spokesman for Russian-led militia in eastern Ukraine. “They allow you to control the movement of the enemy and also create a good springboard for the further advance of our troops.”
Ukraine is pressing western allies to send air defence systems, armoured vehicles, missiles and other ammunition as quickly as possible in advance of a planned spring offensive.
“I think Germany could really help more with ammunition. With artillery ammunition,” Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba told German newspaper Bild am Sonntag.
“We sat down with Ukrainian representatives and the German arms industry, and German industry, in my presence, demanded one thing from the German government: signed contracts. ‘We are ready to deliver,’ [they said]. So the problem lies with the government.”
[ Bakhmut: a ghost town of high symbolic importance to Kremlin and Wagner mercenary group ]
Mr Kuleba also played down Ukraine’s hopes of receiving fighter jets from western states in the near future, calling it “a very difficult task from a logistical and technical point of view,” but he also urged Germany and other allies to start training its pilots “so that when the decision is made to provide the aircraft, we don’t spend ... many months preparing”.
Ukrainian officials said on Sunday that Russian shelling had killed at least three civilians and injured three others in the southeastern Kherson region, and killed two people and wounded four more in Donetsk province.
Also on Sunday, Ukraine’s security services said that the prisoner of war killed by Russian soldiers in a clip that spread quickly across Ukraine and much of the world is Oleksandr Igorevich Matsievskyi, bringing an end to the dispute over his identity.
In the graphic 12-second clip that first circulated on Telegram last Monday, a detained combatant is seen standing in a shallow trench smoking a cigarette. The soldier, in uniform with a Ukrainian flag insignia on his arm, says “Glory to Ukraine” and is then apparently shot with automatic weapons by a group of Russian soldiers.
The video, allegedly posted to Telegram by Russian soldiers, has led to a war crimes investigation. The Ukrainian military on Tuesday initially named the soldier as Tymofiy Shadura but cautioned that a final confirmation could not be made until the body had been recovered from currently Russian-controlled territory.
“We have received the conclusion of a forensic photo examination, which confirmed that the soldier in the video is Oleksandr Matsievskyi,” the security service wrote on Twitter on Sunday. “This is the result of a series of investigative actions, which included communication with relatives and relatives of the deceased, as well as the processing of photos and video materials. This man is a real hero who, even facing death, demonstrated to the whole world what Ukrainian character and indomitability are.”
[ ‘I went for my son’: Ukrainians pin hopes on prisoner swaps to bring soldiers home from Russia ]
Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar said on Sunday he was optimistic that a deal allowing Ukraine to export grain via the Black Sea would be extended when it comes up for renewal next Saturday.
“In separate talks with the Russian and Ukrainian sides, we saw that both sides are approaching this positively. We believe it will conclude positively,” he told Turkish media.
The United Nations and Turkey brokered the deal last July to lift a Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports.