Ukrainian military’s top commander says his forces are pushing back Russian assault on city in the Donbas region.
Ukrainian forces are “managing to stabilise” the situation around the eastern city of Bakhmut, the head of Ukraine’s military says.
The now destroyed city has been the focus of the biggest battle of Russia’s war in recent months.
The front-line situation is “the toughest in the Bakhmut direction”, Valery Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said after a phone call with British Chief of the Defence Staff Tony Radakin.
“Due to the tremendous efforts of the Defence Forces, we are managing to stabilise the situation,” Zaluzhny said in a post on Facebook late on Friday.
Bakhmut, which once had a population of about 70,000 people, has been virtually emptied of civilians over months of fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces although some residents remain.
Russian forces have been making painstakingly incremental gains around the city, whose symbolic importance has surpassed any military significance as the battle has dragged on.
The battle for Bakhmut is one of the bloodiest and longest in the war, which entered its second year in February.
According to the latest intelligence update on Saturday from the British Ministry of Defence, Russia’s assault on Bakhmut “has largely stalled”.
“This is likely primarily a result of extreme attrition of the Russian forces,” the British statement read, adding that Ukraine had also “suffered heavy casualties”.
Senior Ukrainian military commander Oleksandr Syrsky said a counterattack could be launched soon against “exhausted” Russian forces near Bakhmut.
“The aggressor has not given up hope of taking Bakhmut at all costs despite losses in manpower and equipment,” Syrsky said.
“Sparing nothing, they are losing significant strength and becoming exhausted,” he added and referred to successful Ukrainian counteroffensives last year in saying, “Very soon we will take advantage of this opportunity like we did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupiansk.”
But President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said a counteroffensive cannot happen now because his country lacks weapons, equipment and ammunition.
Zelenskyy’s’s assessment, made in a report published on Saturday in the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun, came after he visited troops near the Bakhmut front line on Wednesday.
“We cannot start yet,” Zelenskyy said. Without tanks and artillery, “no brave soldiers” can be sent to the front, he said.
The head of Russia’s Wagner private militia, Yevgeny Prigozhin, earlier had said that his forces were in control of about 70 percent of Bakhmut.
About 10,000 Ukrainians, many elderly and people with disabilities, remained in and around Bakhmut and were suffering “very dire conditions”, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Friday.
“They are … spending almost the entire days in intense shelling in the shelters,” the aid group’s Umar Khan said at a news briefing. “All you see is people pushed to the very limits of their existence and survival and resilience.”