Ukraine fears fall of key hilltop city ‘inevitable’, giving Putin propaganda coup

A Ukrainian soldier prepares for duty
A Ukrainian soldier prepares for duty on the front line near threatened Chasiv Yar - ROMAN PILIPEY/AFP via Getty

Outgunned six to one by the Russians, Ukraine is desperately trying to retain control of a hilltop Donbas city that holds the key to the country’s east, a front-line commander has told The Telegraph.

“Chasiv Yar is the most important high ground as it gives control and superiority and the chance to capture the Donetsk region,” said Lt Oles Malyarevich, deputy commander of the Achilles strike battalion, speaking by phone between firefights on the front line.

The city lies on hills overlooking interlocking river valleys and dominates a road network that links the occupied town of Bakhmut six miles to the east and a string of Ukraine’s “fortress cities” 10 miles to the west.

This week, Russian paratroopers reportedly reached the outskirts of Chasiv Yar.

Kyiv has said it believes Vladimir Putin wants to capture the city before Russia’s Victory Day parade on May 9 as a propaganda coup.

Lt Malyarevich said that unless his men received resupplies soon, Russia would eventually capture the city.

Kyiv is facing a major shortage of ammo and other weapons, with £48.5 billion of military aid held up for weeks by US lawmakers.

The House of Representatives finally passed the bill on Saturday, paving the way for it to be signed into law within the next few days, but the damage on the front line has been done.

Ukraine’s forces in Chasiv Yar are outgunned by a ratio of six to one, said Lt Malyarevich, with the Kremlin manufacturing new weapon systems for its forces and bringing in artillery shells from North Korea and drones from Iran.

“The demons have accumulated a huge group of troops and set the task of capturing Chasiv Yar by May 9,” he said.

“The enemy attacks 24/7 with absolute superiority in the air, artillery, drones and manpower.”

A British FV103 Spartan armoured personnel carrier used by Ukraine near Chasiv Yar
A British FV103 Spartan armoured personnel carrier used by Ukraine near Chasiv Yar - ROMAN PILIPEY/AFP via Getty

Russian commanders have told Ukrainian forces to surrender or be wiped out. But Lt Malyarevich has said his soldiers would keep fighting until the bitter end.

“Now is the moment of truth,“ he said. “Who is right? The civilised world or the dictators of Russia, China and Iran?”

Since a Ukrainian counter-offensive stalled last summer, the momentum of the war has swung towards Russia.

Analysts said that the Ukrainian counter-offensive flop, the decision to deprioritise building trenches and the failure of the West to supply promised weapons and F-16 fighter jets had allowed Russia to grab the initiative.

Ukrainian commanders have even said that Russia’s dominance is now so entrenched that even if they were given the F-16 fighter jets they asked for in 2023, they wouldn’t be able to shift momentum on the battlefield.

Chasiv Yar is of particular importance because it can be used as a springboard to capture the rest of the Donbas region.

“The key to Donbas is Sloviansk and the way to this is via Chasiv Yar,” said John Foreman, a retired Royal Navy officer and a former British military attache to Ukraine and Russia.

“The Ukrainians know this, hence the ferocity they have defended Chasiv Yar.”

That view is echoed by the US-based Institute for the Study of War which said that the fall of Chasiv Yar would expose Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Druzhkivka and Kostiantynivka, which it described as the “backbone” of the Ukrainian army’s defence.

“The offensive effort to seize Chasiv Yar offers Russian forces the most immediate prospects for operationally significant advances,” it said.

Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Chasiv Yar, which translates as “Quiet Ravine”, was a small industrial city of around 12,500 people. Now only a few hundred mainly elderly residents remain.

The city had a factory producing reinforced concrete and a mine that dug out heat-resistant clay, important sources of wealth for the region but hardly vital for Ukraine.

The battle has turned Chasiv Yar from a pleasant green town peppered with typical Soviet-era high-rise residential apartment blocks built in neat rows into a hellscape of smashed buildings, destroyed roads and waterlogged craters.

“Fighting for Chasiv Yar has begun. It will be long. The fighting will be about the same as for Bakhmut,” said Sergei Markov, a former Kremlin speech writer, referring to the city captured by Russia captured last year after a months-long battle.

Ukrainian machine gunners pick off soldiers from Russia’s “cannon fodder” Storm-Z battalions, made up of criminals who have been promised freedom if they survive six months on the front line, as they are ordered forward into no man’s land.

Russian tanks, artillery and missiles relentlessly pound Ukrainian soldiers with missiles and bombs.

“The stakes are incredibly high,” said analyst Mr Foreman. “Russia is now targeting the main line of defence with glide bombs to soften it up. Ukraine lacks air defences to prevent this.”

Glide bombs, which have improved precision, range and power, are one of an array of new weapons developed by Russia to push its advantage on the front line.

Ukraine’s military commander Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi appears concerned.

He has been visiting his forces in Chasiv Yar to boost morale and said that Putin wanted to capture the town before May 9, when Russia celebrates the Soviet Union’s defeat of Nazi Germany.

The Kremlin has not commented on this alleged deadline but experts say it is credible that Putin would want to showcase another military victory ahead of one of his biggest propaganda days of the year.

“The militarisation of Russian society is happening and they need to continue the great victories of the Russian army,” said Stephen Hall, assistant professor of Russian politics at the University of Bath.

“Chasiv Yar may possibly be that great victory that Putin can talk about on May 9.”