Bakhmut ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen sit on a BMP military vehicle as they move towards Bakhmut in the region of Donbas, on March 13, 2023, amid the Russian attack of Ukraine. Image Credit: AFP

Near Kreminna: Ukraine’s future hinges on the outcome of battles in the east, including in and around Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, with both sides describing brutal fighting as Russia intensifies a winter campaign to capture the small city.

Bakhmut has become the focus of Russia’s attack, with the months-long fight becoming Europe’s bloodiest infantry battle since World War Two.

“It is very tough in the east - very painful,” Zelenskiy said in his overnight video address, held nightly since Russia launched its attack more than a year ago.

“We have to destroy the enemy’s military power. And we shall destroy it.”

Kyiv and Moscow gave differing accounts of negotiations to extend the Black Sea grain deal, established last year to prevent global famine by securing wartime exports from Ukraine and Russia, both among the world’s top suppliers of food.

The arrangement, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, is due to expire this week. Russia said it had been extended for 60 days, but Ukraine said the agreement required any extension to last 120 days. Turkey said talks were still ongoing.

On the battlefront, Ukrainian soldiers said on Monday they were repelling attacks near Kreminna, north of Bakhmut.

In a forest some 8 km from the front, cannons boomed and explosions rumbled constantly in the distance.

A soldier was brought from the front with a wounded leg. He was stabilised in a van with a splint and painkillers before being taken to a medical centre.

“We stabilise the patient as much as possible,” medic Mykhailo Anest, 35, said as a huge explosion rang out. “This means bandaging, inspecting tourniquets if any were applied, giving pain killers, treating infections, giving infusions... We do all of this so that once our patient arrives at the stabilisation point, he is as stable as possible.”

On the other side of the front in Volnovakha, a Russian-controlled village to the south, the body of a woman lay on a street next to a ruined shop. A Russian military investigator told Reuters the area had been struck by Ukrainian shelling.

Trench warfare, described by both sides as a meat grinder, has claimed a huge toll in Bakhmut, with both sides reporting hundreds of enemy troops killed each day. Neither side gives regular figures of its own casualties.

Russia says taking Bakhmut would open a path to capture all of surrounding Donetsk province, a central war aim. Ukraine, which has decided to defend Bakhmut rather than withdraw, says wearing out Russia’s military there now will help its counter-offensive later.

But not every military analyst is convinced that defending Bakhmut is the best strategy for Ukraine.

Ukraine was suffering losses among reserves it intended to use for a later push against Russian forces, Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said in an interview. “We could lose here everything we wanted to use for those counter-offensives.”