Fighting around the key eastern Ukraine town of Bakhmut has descended into a bloody morass with hundreds of dead and injured reported daily, as neither Russian or Ukrainian forces were able to make a significant breakthrough after months of fighting.
As Russia moved fresh formations to the area in recent weeks, including reinforcements previously in the Kherson region, the fighting in the Bakhmut sector has descended into trench warfare reminiscent of the first world war.
Over the weekend, images emerged of Ukrainian soldiers in flooded, muddy trenches and battlefields dotted with the stumps of trees cut down by withering artillery barrages.
Heavy fighting continued on Monday around Soledar, with mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private military corporation – which includes pardoned convicts – in the forefront.
Ukraine’s presidential office said on Monday that at least four civilians had been killed and 11 others wounded in the latest Russian attacks. It said intense fighting was continuing along the frontline in the east, with the Russians shelling Bakhmut and Toretsk at the epicentre of the fighting.
“People are sheltering in the basements, many of which are filled by water,” said the governor of Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko. “They have been living in catastrophic conditions without power or heating.”
The focus of much of the recent fighting, however, has been the now-shattered town of Bakhmut itself, largely abandoned by its 70,000 residents, with both sides sending reinforcements for a battle that has continued relentlessly since the summer as Moscow has sought to secure a victory after a series of battlefield setbacks and retreats.
However, with little obvious strategic value, and a series of well-defended cities beyond the Bakhmut sector, the Wagner-led efforts appear to have become more about the prestige of Wagner in the Kremlin’s inner circles than any joined-up military thinking.
While Russia has been using the same tactics as it did to conquer the nearby cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lychansk – with incessant heavy artillery barrages to wear down the Ukrainian defenders – Ukrainian forces appear determined to hold their lines and inflict heavy casualties on the Russian attackers.
Recent video from the town, posted on social media, showed shelled-wrecked buildings, some reduced to rubble.
The fighting around Bakhmut continued as Ukraine warned civilians to prepare for more Russian strikes on Monday, with the possibility of a new round of evacuations from the capital during a relative lull from airstrikes on energy facilities and other key infrastructure in recent weeks.
Meanwhile, the west has stepped up preparations to boost humanitarian aid to Ukraine, so that the population can enjoy some warmth during their coldest months and keep the resolve of the nation as high as possible.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, warned that Russian troops “are preparing new strikes and as long as they have missiles, they won’t stop”.
“The upcoming week can be as hard as the one that passed,” he said.
In the capital, Kyiv, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said that some of the city’s 3 million inhabitants might have to be evacuated to places where essential services would be less prone to shutdowns caused by missile attacks.
Russia has pounded energy facilities around Kyiv with a barrage of missile strikes, resulting in power outages and breaks in water supplies to the city.
And with temperatures hovering around freezing, expected to dip as low as -11C in little more than a week, international help was increasingly focused on items such as generators and autotransformers, to make sure blackouts that affect everything from kitchens to operating rooms were as limited and short as possible.
The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, “continues trying to make Ukraine a black hole – no light, no electricity, no heating to put the Ukrainians into the darkness and the cold”, said the European Union foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell. “So we have to continue our support providing more material for the Ukrainians to face the winter without electricity.”
Borrell was leading a meeting of EU ministers that would specifically “look at the Ukrainian war from the point of view of a humanitarian crisis”.
Over the next three days, leading Nato officials and foreign ministers will gather in Bucharest, Romania, where such humanitarian aspects will also be assessed.
Ukraine’s energy provider Ukrenergo said on Monday it was still short of 27% of output after Russian strikes on energy infrastructure. “The scale and complexity of the damage are high, and repair works have continued around the clock,” the company said in a statement.
Power supply has been restored to 17% of residents in the southern city of Kherson, which Ukraine reclaimed earlier this month. The Russians have continued pounding the city with artillery barrages.
The latest fighting continued as it emerged that the Pentagonwas considering a proposal from Boeing to supply Ukraine with cheap, small precision bombs fitted on to abundantly available rockets, allowing Kyiv to strike far behind Russian lines as the west struggles to meet demand for more arms.
Agencies contributed to this report