ITV News Correspondent John Ray reports from eastern Ukraine where troops are facing a fierce resistance
Bakhmut isn’t a big place. Without war it would have remained a name unknown outside eastern Ukraine. But as the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion approaches, it has assumed huge totemic importance. After months of retreat, Vladimir Putin needs a victory, and he seems to have decreed that Bakhmut is the key to the wider Donbas region. Yet its exact strategic value is disputed. Many analysts argue that it’s of little military significance.
So are the Russians drawing the Ukrainians in a resource sapping struggle? Does it open up routes west? Perhaps it really is simply that the Kremlin needs a political win. Whatever the reasons, the fighting here has been among the most intense of the war. Sometimes the two sides are merely metres apart. Close enough, in the images we broadcast tonight, for a Ukrainian soldier to throw a hand grenade at the Russians.
A few thousand civilians remain inside the city, but most have fled. There is just one Ukraine-controlled road in and out. Today an aid worker was killed, and others gravely injured when they were hit by Russian artillery. On a snow-covered field a few miles from the front line, we spent time with the crew of a Ukrainian missile launcher.
Their morale remains high. They take their co-ordinates – a group of Russia soldiers attempting to advance, they say, along a railway line – and fire their rockets. Mission accomplished; it seems. But the soldiers – veterans of the war - admit the Russians are learning from their mistakes. ‘’They used to advance in columns that were easy to destroy,’’ says Maxim. ‘’But they’re changing tactics. Of course, we cannot afford to under-estimate them.’’
Much has been made of the use by Russia in this battle of mercenaries. The convicts-turned-soldiers of the Wagner Group, canon-fodder thrown in huge numbers at Ukrainian defences. More recent reports tell of their re-enforcement by regular Russian troops. Perhaps all this is the precursor to a sustained spring offensive. Putin is said to have ordered his forces to retake the entire region by March. It’s a task that’s been well beyond them so far. At Bakhmut, the battle has been so brutal it’s been called ‘the meat grinder.’ Whether Ukraine holds the city, or withdraws to conserve its forces, it will not be the last of this war.
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