Hundreds of Russian troops have been killed in Bakhmut as Vladimir Putin’s troops seek to wrest control of the frontline Donetsk city – with Kyiv’s snipers said to have set up a “killing zone”.
Some 520 Russian troops were killed and wounded in Bakhmut alone in one day’s fighting, Ukraine’s military said, claiming Russia had suffered 2,000 fatalities since Friday – marking some of the deadliest days of the war since Russia’s invasion.
Seeking to replenish its heavy losses, Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said his Wagner private army had opened recruitment centres in 42 cities – as the UK asserted that the impact of casualties “varies dramatically” across Russian regions.
Losses are more than 30 times higher in many eastern regions than in Moscow, with the capital and St Petersburg “relatively unscathed” while in other places ethnic minorities bear the brunt of the Kremlin’s war, according to Britain’s Ministry of Defence.
“Insulating the better-off and more influential elements of Russian society” is likely a “major consideration”, the ministry said, adding that none of the officials in the two front rows of the audience at Mr Putin’s state of the union speech on 21 February are known to have children in the military.
Russian casualties are believed to have soared by tens of thousands as the fighting centred around Bakhmut in recent months, becoming one of the bloodiest battlegrounds of the entire war as Moscow aims to punch a hole in Ukraine’s defences in a step towards seizing the entire Donbas region.
Moscow’s intensified onslaught in the city was finally making progress but their assault will be difficult to sustain without more significant losses, British military officials said.
Wagner Group units have seized most of eastern Bakhmut, with a river flowing through the city now marking the frontline, according to UK intelligence, with Wagner’s leader Mr Prigozhin claiming his mercenaries were less than a mile from the city’s administrative centre.
Ukrainian troops and supply lines remain vulnerable to continued Russian attempts to outflank them from the north and south as Wagner mercenaries try to close in on them in a pincer movement, British officials said.
But it will be “highly challenging” for Wagner’s soldiers to push ahead because Ukraine has destroyed key bridges over the river, while Ukrainian sniper fire from fortified buildings further west has made the thin strip of open ground in the city’s centre “a killing zone.”
Meanwhile, Russian military bloggers claimed Moscow’s forces had entered a heavily built-up and fortified metal processing factory in the city’s northwest, the focus on which – as opposed to a “wider encirclement of western Bakhmut” – the US-based Institute for the Study of War assessed could bring a further wave of Russian casualties.
While Russia’s defence ministry said that up to 210 Ukrainian soldiers were killed in the broader Donetsk part of the frontline, Kyiv’s ground forces signalled an intention to hold out in Bakhmut, claiming their top officer, Colonel Oleksandr Syrskyi, was personally overseeing “the most important sectors of the front” to deny Moscow a victory.
“It is necessary to gain time to accumulate reserves and start a counter-offensive, which is not far off,” the military cited Mr Syrskyi as saying.
Additional reporting by agencies