A Russian missile strike killed eight people in eastern Ukraine on Friday as a British assessment said Ukrainian troops had been forced to withdraw from parts of the city of Bakhmut, the focus of Moscow’s slow advance through the region.
Ukrainian troops have been doggedly defending Bakhmut, shattered after months of shelling and bombardment. Ukrainian military commanders this week rejected as exaggerated Russian statements that its forces now controlled 80% of the city.
In Sloviansk, a city west of Bakhmut that Russia is seeking to capture, missile strikes on apartment buildings and other targets killed eight people and injured 21, regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko told national television. He said seven missiles had been fired.
Two top floors collapsed in one building and rescuers searched for survivors into the night, pulling one woman in her seventies alive from the rubble. A child died on the way to a hospital after being rescued, according to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s office.
“The evil state once again demonstrates its essence,” Zelenskiy wrote on Telegram in a post accompanied by footage of the damaged building. “Just killing people in broad daylight. Ruining, destroying all life.”
The strike was one of a long series of attacks to hit civilian areas in the war, now just over a year old. Russia has repeatedly said it does not target civilian sites.
The assessment by Britain’s military said Russia had been pouring in new resources in a bid to capture Bakhmut, seen by Moscow as a stepping stone to capturing more territory in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, a major war aim.
Western countries have in the past pointed to acrimony between the Russian defence ministry (MoD) and the country’s main mercenary force Wagner as a significant Russian weakness.
“Russia has re-energised its assault on the Donetsk Oblast town of Bakhmut as forces of the Russian MoD and Wagner Group have improved co-operation,” Britain’s military said in a daily briefing note.
“Ukrainian forces face significant resupply issues but have made orderly withdrawals from the positions they have been forced to concede.”
Near Bakhmut, soldiers from a Ukrainian artillery unit were loading shells into a Soviet-era howitzer and firing towards the front line, where they said Russia had massed its foot soldiers.
“Our target in that direction is mostly infantry. There is a big concentration of the Russian Federation’s ‘human factor’,” said Dmytro, 44, the artillery unit’s commander. The gun thundered as the unit blasted three shells, the first to find range, the second to adjust aim.
“The third one is finishing off. Most likely, I hope, the infantry they spotted was eliminated.”
Bakhmut, which held around 70,000 people before the war, has been Russia’s main target in a massive winter offensive that has so far yielded scant gains despite infantry ground combat of an intensity unseen in Europe since World War Two.
The British update said the Ukrainians still held western districts of the town but had been subjected to particularly intense Russian artillery fire over the previous 48 hours.
Wagner mercenary units were now focusing on advancing in the centre of Bakhmut, while Russian paratroopers were relieving them in attacks on the city’s flanks, it said.
The Institute for the Study of War think tank said geolocated footage indicated that Russian forces had advanced further west into central Bakhmut the previous day and made “marginal advances” in the south and southwest of the city.
Capturing the city would be Russia’s first substantial victory in eight months.
In his nightly video address, Zelenskiy said he told commanders at a meeting that the main aim remained “the destruction of the occupiers (and) the depletion of their resources.”
In Washington, Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said “fruitful meetings this week” had secured promises of $5 billion in additional funding to support Kyiv’s fight against Russia.
Shmyhal met with representatives of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the European Investment Bank, as well as top U.S. officials, on the sidelines of the spring meetings of the IMF and the World Bank.
After major Ukrainian breakthroughs in the second half of 2022, the front lines have barely budged over the last five months, despite a massive Russian offensive.
Moscow has made use of hundreds of thousands of freshly conscripted reservists and thousands of convicts recruited as mercenaries from jails. Kyiv, meanwhile, has mostly stuck to defending its lines while waiting for the arrival of new Western arms for an expected counter-offensive in coming months.
Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, writing on his Telegram channel, said Ukraine had to mount its expected counter-offensive soon or “gradually lose their combative potential.”
“For us, Bakhmut is very advantageous. We grind down the Ukrainian army there and restrain its manoeuvres,” he said.