Much of Russia’s yearlong invasion in Ukraine has devolved into infantry fighting in the eastern regions of the country, in part because Moscow’s forces are short on artillery munitions, the British Ministry of Defense said Sunday.
In its latest assessment, London said, “Recent evidence suggests an increase in close combat in Ukraine. This is probably a result of the Russian command continuing to insist on offensive action largely consisting of dismounted infantry.”
The ministry said that late last month, Russia mobilized reservists who have described “being ordered to assault a Ukrainian concrete strong point armed with only ‘firearms and shovels.’ The ‘shovels’ are likely entrenching tools being employed for hand-to-hand combat.”
It said, “The lethality of the standard-issue MPL-50 entrenching tool is particularly mythologised in Russia,” but that “little has changed since its design in 1869.”
“Its continued use as a weapon highlights the brutal and low-tech fighting which has come to characterize much of the war,” defense officials said. “One of the reservists described being ‘neither physically nor psychologically’ prepared for the action.”
Ukrainian troops holding out in Bakhmut face increased pressure Saturday from Russian forces as they help civilians flee the besieged eastern city.
It is now too dangerous to leave Bakhmut by vehicle, a Ukrainian army representative told The Associated Press, so civilians must flee on foot. Ukrainian soldiers set up a pontoon bridge Saturday to help civilians reach the nearby village of Khromove, the AP said.
One woman was killed and two men were badly wounded while trying to escape over the makeshift bridge, according to the Ukrainian troops helping them.
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Ukrainian troops have destroyed two key bridges just outside the city, including one to Chasiv Yar, cutting off their last remaining resupply route, according to U.K. military intelligence officials and other Western analysts.
Destroying the bridge could be a sign that Kyiv is preparing to leave. The Institute for the Study of War said that by taking out the Chasiv Yar bridge, Ukrainian troops might “conduct a limited and controlled withdrawal from particularly difficult sections of eastern Bakhmut,” while making it more difficult for Russians to pursue them.
A predicted rise in temperature is expected to bring muddy terrain known as “bezdorizhzhia,” which bogs down cross-country advances, and favours the defenders.
If Russian fighters do capture Bakhmut, it would be a rare battlefield gain after months of setbacks and it might allow them to cut Ukraine’s supply lines and press toward other Ukrainian strongholds in the Donetsk region.
Ukrainian National Guard Deputy Commander Volodymyr Nazarenko told Ukrainian broadcaster Kyiv24 Saturday the city remains under Ukrainian control despite intense and ongoing attacks by Russian forces.
“Every hour in Bakhmut is like hell,” he said. “The enemy had successes in the north, northwest of Bakhmut a week ago. Ukrainian soldiers are fighting back. Over the past few days, the front line has been stabilized thanks to our hard work and efforts.”
Bakhmut’s deputy mayor, Oleksandr Marchenko, confirmed to the BBC that “Thanks to the Ukrainian armed forces, they still haven’t taken control of the city.”
City all but destroyed
Marchenko said about 4,000 civilians remain in what was a city of 70,000 that is all but destroyed. They live in shelters without gas, electricity or water, he said.
Responding to reports of the withdrawal of some Ukrainian troops, Serhiy Cherevatyi, the spokesperson of the eastern grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, told CNN on Saturday that Ukrainian soldiers are rotating positions in Bakhmut in controlled, planned cycles.
Cherevatyi said there have been hostilities around Bakhmut, in the villages of Vasiukivka and Dubovo-Vasylivka to the north of the city and in the villages of Ivanivske and Bohdanivka to the west.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary force, posted a video Saturday allegedly showing coffins he said contained bodies of Ukrainian soldiers being sent to territory held by Kyiv.
In the video, Prigozhin, wearing military gear, said, “We are sending another shipment of Ukrainian army fighters home. They fought bravely and perished. That’s why the latest truck will take them back to their motherland.”
The British intelligence update on Twitter said Bakhmut is vulnerable to Russian attacks on three sides but said Ukraine is reinforcing the areas with elite units.
Meanwhile, Russia’s defense minister visited Russian soldiers in Ukraine on Saturday.
The ministry said in a statement on the messaging app Telegram that Sergei Shoigu “inspected the forward command post of one of the formations of the Eastern Military District in the South Donetsk direction.”
Shoigu has been criticized for Russia’s poor performance in its war against Ukraine. In a video released Saturday, the military chief was seen handing out medals to Russian military forces.
With reporting by VOA.