KYIV, Ukraine — The battle for Bakhmut is heating up again, analysts and Russian officials said Friday, as Ukrainian defenders of the devastated city resisted a coordinated three-pronged attack by the Kremlin’s forces and efforts to stop supplies from reaching them.
“Russia has re-energized its assault” on Bakhmut, the U.K. Ministry of Defense said of recent developments in the eastern Ukraine city, which for eight and a half months has been the stage for the war ’s longest and bloodiest fight.
“The Ukrainian defense still holds the western districts of the town but has been subjected to particularly intense Russian artillery fire over the previous 48 hours,” the ministry’s assessment said.
Until recently, a notorious private Russian military contractor, the Wagner Group, spearheaded the campaign to take Bakhmut, making slow, grinding progress at the cost of thousands of lives on both sides. Now, regular Russian units have joined the thrust.
Military analysts have said that seizing Bakhmut would have public relations and tactical military value for Moscow though it would be unlikely to prove decisive in the war’s outcome. The Russian Defense Ministry also noted the stepped-up fighting in western parts of the city Friday.
“Wagner assault detachments are engaged in high-intensity combat operations to capture areas of western Bakhmut with airborne forces supporting on the flanks,” the ministry said in a statement.
It added: “The units of the airborne forces operating on the flanks are providing support to the assault squads and stop the enemy’s attempts to deliver ammunition to the city and bring in reserves.”
Bakhmut lies in Donetsk province, one of four provinces Russia illegally annexed last fall. Moscow controls about half of the province. Bakhmut is a stepping stone to seizing the remaining half.
Ukrainian officials have said they’re buying time by depleting Russian forces in the battle while Kyiv prepares a counteroffensive. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy argues that if Russia wins the Bakhmut battle, Russian President Vladimir Putin might be able to begin building international support for a deal that would require Ukraine to make unacceptable compromises to end the war.
The Ukrainian president’s office said Friday that fighting over the previous 24 hours in Bakhmut destroyed two kindergartens and residential buildings. The city already resembles a ghost town.
The British military observed that regular Russian troops have increasingly joined the battle.
“Wagner assault groups continue to conduct the main advance through the center of town, while Russian airborne forces have relieved some Wagner units securing the northern and southern flanks of the operation,” the British military said on Twitter.
It noted, however, that though the Ukrainian defenders have “significant resupply issues” their withdrawals from Bakhmut positions have been made in an orderly fashion.
Fighting continued elsewhere in the Donetsk region that includes Bakhmut. Five people were killed when Russian missiles struck the city of Sloviansk on Friday, said regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.
Earlier, the presidential office said at least three civilians were killed and nine wounded from Thursday to Friday.