The city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine endured heavy Russian artillery fire on Monday in an apparent prelude to a major new offensive as the first anniversary of the war neared.
Ukrainian defenders, who have already held out there for months, were braced for new ground attacks, Ukrainian military officials said.
Positions in Bakhmut have been fortified and only people with a military role were being allowed in, a deputy battalion commander said. Any civilians who still wanted to leave the city would have to brave the incoming fire, he said.
Bakhmut is a prime objective for Russian President Vladimir Putin and its capture would give Russia a new foothold in the Donetsk region and a rare victory after several months of setbacks. Donetsk and Luhansk regions make up the Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Russia partially occupies it and wants to win full control.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said he considered the long-anticipated Russian offensive to have already started.
“We see no sign whatsoever that President Putin is preparing for peace,” he said ahead of a NATO defence minister’s meeting on Tuesday.
“What we see is President Putin and Russia still wanting to control Ukraine. We see how they are sending more troops, more weapons, more capabilities,” he told reporters.
The Russian assault on Bakhmut has been spearheaded by mercenaries of the Wagner group, who have made small but steady gains. The renewed Russian bombardments made the situation there even more acute.
“The city, the city’s suburbs, the entire perimeter, and essentially the entire Bakhmut direction and Kostyantynivka are under crazy, chaotic shelling,” said Volodymyr Nazarenko, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Svoboda battalion.
Nazarenko said that although no fighting was taking place in the city centre right now, the defenders were prepared to meet any assault.
“The city is a fortress, every position and every street there, almost every building, is a fortress,” he said.
Earlier on Monday, the Russian defence ministry said its troops had pushed forward a few kilometres along the frontlines, without specifying exactly where in a war zone that encompasses several regions in the south and east.
The Ukrainian military reported Russian shelling all along the frontline and said 16 settlements had been bombarded near Bakhmut. It said that over the past day, its forces had repelled a number of attacks near Bakhmut as well as assaults in Kharkiv, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Russian forces had attacked Bilogorivka from all sides before dawn on Monday.
“But our forces fought back there,” he told Ukrainian television. “It was the same situation in the direction of Kreminna – a lot of them (Russians) appeared there. But they pulled back after the fight with our forces.”
Regarding the Russian offensive, he said: “Preparations for this offensive are already under way, the amount of shelling, air strikes and attacks by small groups has already increased. We are waiting for them to start massive round-the-clock attacks.”
Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield reports.
VILLAGE UNDER FIRE
The frontline village of Chasiv Yar has been shelled heavily in recent days as Russian troops work to cut off routes to Bakhmut city.
One family told Reuters they had decided to leave the village after a projectile flew into their yard, destroying an outdoor toilet and damaging the roof and windows of their home.
Grandmother Raiisa Akusova, 75, suffered a heart attack shortly after setting off for the evacuation centre in Dnipro and volunteers took her to a medical centre where she was pronounced dead, they said.
Her nine-year-old grandson Oleksandr cried as the family discussed where to hold the funeral.
The United Nations human rights office said on Monday that it had recorded 7,199 civilian deaths and 11,756 injured since the invasion, mostly from shelling and missile and air strikes. However, it believed the actual figure was far higher, it said.
With Ukraine desperate for more weapons and munitions to turn the tide of the war, defence ministers from several NATO countries allied to Kyiv were due to meet in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss possible further military aid.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the main items on the agenda of the talks at NATO headquarters will be air defences, forming a tank coalition, training of troops and logistical support.
Ukraine says it needs fighter jets and long-range missiles to counter the offensive and recapture lost territory.
NATO’s Stoltenberg also said he expected the issue of aircraft to be discussed at the meeting, but that such supplies would take time whereas Ukraine needed urgent support on the ground now.
Russia invaded Ukraine last Feb. 24 saying its neighbour posed a security threat. Kyiv and the West say the action was nothing more than a land grab.
Putin’s forces failed in an early bid to capture the capital and the conflict has since become a war of attrition that has killed thousands of soldiers and civilians and left whole cities in ruins.
Also on Monday, Energy Minister German Galushchenko said Ukraine was meeting consumers’ energy needs after carrying out repairs to the national power network following the latest wave of Russian air strikes on Friday.