Russia has begun a major offensive focusing on the Ukraine city of Bakhmut, stepping up artillery barrages in preparation for ground attacks in and around the war-torn urban area. Despite taking heavy casualties, the Ukrainian armed forces say they have no intention of withdrawing, despite the threat of an operational encirclement.
NATO confirmed the Russian offensive on Monday (Feb. 13), with secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg backing reports by local Ukrainian officials to that effect. “The reality is we have seen the start” of a Russian offensive, he told reporters in Brussels, adding that the Kremlin faces serious losses in its newest attempt to secure a victory.
What “President Putin does now,” he said, “is to send thousands and thousands more troops, accepting a very high rate of casualty.”
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 attacks near Bakhmut as well as assaults in the Kharkov, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia regions.
Bakhmut itself is hard-hit. “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.
You are now signed up for our newsletter
Check your email to complete sign up
The Russian assault on Bakhmut has been spearheaded by mercenaries of the Wagner group, who have made small but steady gains in the city. The renewed Russian bombardments made the situation there even more acute. The Russian defense ministry said its troops had pushed forward a few kilometers along the frontlines.
Nazarenko said that, although no fighting was taking place in the city center, 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.
Bakhmut lies along a heavily reinforced front of Ukrainian troops stationed in the area for years. Their presence has confounded attempts by the Russian army, and before that, Russia-backed Donbass rebels, to make advances.
Should Bakhmut fall, it would endanger other Ukrainian units in the region, as Russian troops could exploit the opening to penetrate deeper into Ukrainian territory and threaten more encirclements.
Further jeopardizing Ukraine’s battlefield prospects are reports that the Russian armed forces have amassed fresh divisions amounting to 500,000 troops, as well as several thousand tanks, ahead of an imminent onslaught aimed at conquered all of eastern Ukraine.
The news came from a Ukrainian military official who told Foreign Policy magazine that his country expected a “new, huge invasion” to begin by Feb. 19.
‘Massive round-the-clock attacks’
Russia has been fighting in Ukraine for almost a year, launching an invasion of its neighbor on Feb. 24, 2022. Since last April, the focus of what Putin calls a “special military operation” has been on the eastern part of Ukraine, particularly the industrial Donbass region.
The Donbass includes the Ukrainian oblasts, or provinces, of Luhansk and Donetsk. Both were annexed by Russia in September, but Ukrainian troops continue to hold much of Donetsk, including Bakhmut.
Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai and the Ukrainian governor of Donetsk have recently said that a predicted Russian offensive had begun. Haidai said Russian forces had attacked the village of Bilogorivka from all sides before dawn on Monday.
“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,” Haidai announced.
The United Nations’ human rights office said that as of Feb. 13, it had recorded 7,199 civilian deaths and 11,756 wounded since the beginning of the war, mostly from shelling and missile and air strikes. However, it believed the actual figure was far higher.
The war in Ukraine has been a slow and grinding conflict since the weeks following Russia’s initially swift advances, which saw failed attempts to capture Kiev — Ukraine’s capital — and other major cities. Tens of thousands of troops have been killed on both sides.
NATO, the U.S., and their allies have supplied Ukraine with massive amounts of aid, including long-range missiles and heavy tanks. However, even this has been insufficient to meet the Ukrainian forces’ needs on the frontline, according to Stoltenberg.
“The current rate of Ukraine’s ammunition expenditure is many times higher than our current rate of production,” he told reporters.
Ukraine’s government hopes for more deliveries of long-range missiles, and has requested donations of Western fighter jets as well, something that Stoltenberg said remains to be discussed.
A meeting of several NATO countries was held on Feb. 14 in Germany on the matter of further aid to Ukraine.
Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many NATO countries fell short of meeting the alliance’s munitions stockpiling targets, as officials considered wars of attrition with large-scale artillery a thing of the past.
But the pace of deliveries to Ukraine, where the defenders are firing up to 10,000 artillery shells daily, has drained Western inventories.
A European diplomat told Reuters: “If Europe were to fight Russia, some countries would run out of ammunition in days.”
Reuters contributed to this report.