Russian mercenary boss claims Ukrainian city of Bakhmut ‘practically surrounded’
The beseiged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was “practically surrounded” on Friday afternoon, according to a Russian mercenary boss.
Russian troops were reportedly closing off the last access routes to the city, on the cusp of Moscow’s first major victory in half-a-year after the bloodiest fighting of the war.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Putin’s ‘private army’ the Wagner Group, appeared in combat uniform in a video filmed on a rooftop, to urge Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to order a retreat from Bakhmut to save his soldiers’ lives.
He said the city, which has been blasted to ruins, was almost completely surrounded, with only one route out left open for Ukraine’s troops.
“Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut. Only one route [out] is left,” he said. “The pincers are closing.”
Victory in Bakhmut, a Donetsk province city with a pre-war population of about 70,000, would give Russia the first major prize of a costly winter offensive after it called up hundreds of thousands of reservists last year.
Both sides say they have inflicted devastating losses in Bakhmut. Kyiv has said its forces are still holding out there, while acknowledging the situation has deteriorated this week.
Fierce fighting has reportedly been raging close to the city “round the clock”.
Russian forces have been attacking Bakhmut for months, sometimes in waves and the site has become one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Troops from the Wagner Group, which includes recruits from jails, are believed to have been more successful than the regular Russian army at gradually seizing territory, but to have also been hit with very high casualties.
In the past 24 hours Ukrainian forces repelled more than 85 attacks in the five principal sectors of the Bakhmut front line, the General Staff of the Ukraine Military said on Friday.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, told Ukrainian NV Radio: “Fighting is going on in Bakhmut round the clock...The situation is critical.
“They take no account of their losses in trying to take the city by assault. The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every metre of Ukrainian land costs hundreds of lives to the enemy.”
Russia, which lost territory in Ukraine in the second half of 2022, says taking Bakhmut would be a step towards seizing the rest of the surrounding industrial region known as the Donbas. Ukraine says the city has limited strategic value but wants to exhaust Russian forces.
Western officials believe that Ukraine’s army will eventually have to retreat from Bakhmut.
In nearby towns and villages, new trenches had been dug on the roadside 20-40 metres (65-130 feet) apart, a sign that Ukrainian forces were strengthening defensive positions.
“We need as much ammunition as possible. There are many more Russians here than we have ammunition to destroy them,” Mr Nazarenko said. “The number of enemy soldiers is not what matters. What matters is technology.”
The General Staff said in its morning report that Russia continued to target civilians, something Moscow denies, with air and missile strikes in Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson provinces.
“The enemy continues to violate the norms of International Humanitarian Law. There are wounded civilians, high-rise apartment buildings and private houses are damaged,” it said.
In the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson areas more than 45 settlements reportedly came under Russian fire in the past 24 hours.
Ukranian military chiefs said Russian mercenaries were stealing cars in the occupied Zaporizhzhia province from residents who did not have a Russian passport and forcing people in the village of Boiove in the Kherson province to hand over their land titles.
“As of March 1 of this year, about 200 people from this village were taken to an unknown destination for the so-called filtration measures, and Russian mercenaries have been accommodated in their houses,” they said.
The various reports could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile, Washington was due to announce a new $400 million (£334 million) military aid package for the Kyiv government, and the war is expected to be a major topic between US President Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz when they meet at the White House, officials said.
The aid is expected to comprise mainly ammunition including Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System (GMLRS) for HIMARS launchers, ammunition for Bradley Fighting Vehicles, as well as armoured vehicle launched bridges.
The United States has provided nearly $32 billion (£27 billion) in weaponry to Ukraine to defend itself against Russia, which invaded its pro-Western neighbour on February 24 last year.
Mr Biden and Mr Scholz could also touched on concerns that China may provide lethal aid to Russia, a senior administration official said.
Washington is sounding out close allies about the possibility of imposing new sanctions on China if Beijing provides military support to Russia, say US officials.
China has denied considering such assistance, and US officials have not publicly provided evidence for their suspicions, but there are reports that the supply of drones has been considered.