Ukraine battles for Bakhmut as Russia's Wagner rift grows

ITV News global security editor Rohit Kachroo reports on the brutal battle for Bakhmut

Ukraine has doubled down in its defence of Bakhmut as Russian forces bombard the city, while divisions appear between Vladimir Putin's forces and mercenary ranks.

Intense Russian shelling has been targeting the eastern city, strategically important key to the Donetsk region, as Moscow pours in more resources to try to end its resistance.

Many troops have been killed on both sides - the precise numbers are unknown. Although there are rumours that Moscow is close to declaring victory here, ITV News has heard those predictions for many weeks now.

A Ukrainian soldier told us: "The situation is tense, the tank is shelling the road, the bridge is broken so we have to make detours."

On Monday, more signs emerged of what could be a rift on the Russian side.

Ukrainian soldiers take position at the frontline close to Bakhmut. Credit: AP

Private army, the Wagner group, has played a crucial role in Russia's battle for Bakhmut. But the mercenary group's leader has gone public to say its not getting the ammunition it needs from Moscow, and made a veiled threat to pull out its troops.

Less than a week ago, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the defenders might retreat from Bakhmut and fall back to nearby positions.

But in a clear attempt to project strength, Russia's defence minister travelled to occupied Mariupol on Monday, the scene of Russia's greatest victory of this invasion so far, and spoke to Russian troops.

Mr Zelenskyy’s office said on Monday that he chaired a meeting in which his top military leaders "spoke in favour of continuing the defence operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut."

The Bakhmut battle has exposed Russian military shortcomings and bitter divisions.

They have been attacking the relatively small city for six months sacrificing thousands of lives and huge amounts of equipment for tiny gains.

Analysts disagree on how strategically important the city is but few think it is worth the price Russia has so far paid.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group, has been at loggerheads with the Russian Defence Ministry and repeatedly accused it of failing to provide his forces with ammunition.

On Sunday, he again criticised the Russian military for moving slowly to deliver the promised ammunition and questioned whether the delay was caused "by red tape or treason."

The nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka have come under heavy shelling, damaging cars and homes and sparking a fire.

Police and volunteers evacuated people from Chasiv Yar and other front-line towns in an operation made difficult by the loss of bridges and constant artillery fire that has left barely a house standing.

Russian forces have been unable to deliver a knockout blow that would allow them to seize Bakhmut.

A Ukrainian tank drives towards frontline positions near Bakhmut. Credit: AP

The city's importance has become mostly symbolic. For Putin, prevailing there would finally deliver some good news from the front.

For Kyiv, the display of defiance reinforces a message that Ukraine is holding on after a year of brutal attacks, justifying continued support from its Western allies.

The commander of the Ukrainian land forces, General Oleksandr Syrskyi, noted after visiting Bakhmut that the fight has escalated with the deployment of additional Wagner forces.

Ukrainian troops, focused on defending the city's north to prevent its encirclement, "have inflicted significant losses to the enemy, destroyed a large amount of equipment, forced the best Wagner assault units to be thrown into battle and reduced the enemy’s offensive potential."

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