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Ukraine digs in as Russia claims gains in Bakhmut

Ukraine forces are "on the move" and Russian forces have lost hundreds of men over 24 hours.

Ukraine forces are "on the move" and Russian forces have lost hundreds of men over 24 hours. Photo: AAP

Ukraine’s military says it has managed to push back intense Russian attacks on the city of Bakhmut despite a Russian claim of control over its eastern half and the NATO chief’s warning the city could soon fall.

As one of the bloodiest battles of the year-long war ground on amid the ruins, Ukrainian defenders – who last week appeared to be preparing for a tactical retreat from Bakhmut – remained defiant on Wednesday.

“The enemy continued its attacks and has shown no sign of a let up in storming the city of Bakhmut,” the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said on Facebook.

“Our defenders repelled attacks on Bakhmut and on surrounding communities.”

Ukrainian military and political leaders now speak of hanging on to positions and inflicting as many casualties as possible on the Russians to grind down their fighting capability.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a nightly video address of the battle for Bakhmut and the surrounding Donbas region: “This is our first priority.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, said his fighters had captured the eastern part of Bakhmut.

If true, Russian forces would control almost half the city in a costly pursuit of their first big victory in several months.

“Everything east of the Bakhmutka River is completely under the control of Wagner,” Mr Prigozhin said on the Telegram messaging app.

The river bisects Bakhmut, which sits on the edge of Ukraine’s Donetsk province that is already largely under Russian occupation.

The city centre is on the west side of the river.

Mr Prigozhin has issued premature success claims before and Reuters was not able to verify the situation on the ground.

On Tuesday near Bakhmut, a Ukrainian National Guard chief medic who gave his name as Artem told Reuters all roads out of the city were under constant heavy shelling.

“Ambulances and other vehicles come under shelling and for that reason it is very difficult to evacuate people,” he said.

“There are high losses, and among medics in particular.”

Russia was throwing more troops into the battle, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said before a meeting of European Union defence ministers in Stockholm.

“They have suffered big losses, but at the same time we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days,” Mr Stoltenberg said.

This would not necessarily be a turning point in the war, he added, but it showed “we should not underestimate Russia”.

European Union defence ministers agreed to speed up the supply of artillery rounds and buy more shells to help Ukraine’s military, which is burning through shells faster than its allies can manufacture them.

Under the plan, EU states would get financial incentives worth one billion euros ($1.6 billion) to send more of their artillery rounds to Kyiv, while another one billion euros would fund joint procurement of new shells.

Russia has said it has annexed almost 20 per cent of Ukraine’s territory.

Taking Bakhmut would be a step towards seizing the whole of the industrial Donbas region on its border, Moscow says.

Western analysts say Bakhmut has little strategic value, although its capture would be a boost to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military after a series of setbacks in what they call their “special military operation”.

Kyiv says the losses suffered by Russia there could determine the course of the war, with Ukraine expected to launch a counteroffensive when the weather improves and it receives more Western military aid, including heavy battle tanks.

Iryna Vereshchuk, a deputy Ukrainian premier, said fewer than 4000 civilians – including 38 children – out of a pre-war population of some 70,000 remain in Bakhmut.

– AAP

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