Ukraine is strengthening its forces in the eastern Donbas region and repelling constant attacks on Bakhmut and other towns there by Russian mercenary group Wagner, Ukrainian authorities said on Monday.
Reinforcements had been sent to Soledar, a small town near Bakhmut where the situation was particularly difficult, they said.
“The enemy again made a desperate attempt to storm the city of Soledar from different directions and threw the most professional units of the Wagnerites into battle,” Ukraine’s military said in a statement.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in nightly video remarks on Sunday that Bakhmut and Soledar were holding on despite widespread destruction after months of attacks.
“Our soldiers are repelling constant Russian attempts to advance,” he said. In Soledar “things are very difficult”.
In an evacuee centre in nearby Kramatorsk, Olha, 60, said she had fled Soledar after moving from apartment to apartment as each was destroyed in tank battles.
“All of last week we couldn’t come outside. Everyone was running around, soldiers with automatic weapons, screaming,” said Olha, who gave only her first name.
“There isn’t one house left intact,” she said. “Apartments were burning, breaking in half.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner mercenary group which has been trying to capture Bakhmut and Soledar at the cost of many lives on both sides, said on Saturday its significance lay in the network of mines there.
“It not only (has the ability to hold) a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 metres, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about.”
Military analysts say the strategic military benefit for Moscow would be limited. A U.S. official has said Prigozhin, a powerful ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is eyeing the salt and gypsum from the mines there.
Serhiy Cherevaty, a Ukrainian military spokesman for the eastern region, said he thought it would be possible to stabilise the situation.
“There are brutal and bloody battles there – 106 shellings in one day,” he said on Ukrainian television.
“Our troops in Soledar have been allocated additional forces and means for this purpose and everything is being done to improve the operational situation there.”
Reuters was not able to independently verify the battlefield reports.
Further north in the Kharkiv region, a Russian missile strike on a marketplace in the village of Shevchenkove killed a 60-year-old woman and wounded several other people, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said.
Badly injured people lay on the ground and rescue workers sifted through piles of rubble, overturned and burning stalls, and a large crater in video footage from police and Ukraine’s presidential office. A police officer carried a girl with blood on her face from the scene.
The perpetrators were “common terrorists” Andriy Yermak, chief of the Ukrainian president’s staff, wrote on Telegram.
Zelenskiy made a fresh denunciation of what he called Russia’s failure to observe a ceasefire it had declared for Russian Orthodox Christmas on Friday and Saturday.
Ukraine never agreed to the ceasefire, which it called a Russian excuse to reinforce troops. Both sides accused the other of continuing hostilities throughout the period.
“Russians were shelling Kherson with incendiary ammunition immediately after Christmas,” he said, referring to the southern city abandoned by Russian forces in November.
“Strikes on Kramatorsk and other cities in Donbas – on civilian targets and at the very time when Moscow was reporting a supposed ‘silence’ for its army.”
On Sunday, Russia said a missile attack on Kramatorsk, northwest of Bakhmut, had killed 600 Ukrainian soldiers, but a Reuters reporter at the scene found no visible signs of casualties.
A Reuters team visited two college dormitories that Moscow said had been temporarily housing Ukrainian personnel and which it had targeted as revenge for a New Year’s attack that killed scores of Russian soldiers and caused outcry in Russia.
Neither dormitory appeared to have been directly hit or seriously damaged. There were no obvious signs that soldiers had been living there and no sign of bodies or traces of blood.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a Ukrainian military spokesperson for the eastern region, described the claim of mass casualties as an attempt by the Russian defence ministry to show it had responded forcefully to Ukraine’s recent strikes on Russian soldiers.
“This is an information operation of the Russian defence ministry,” Cherevatyi told Suspilne News.
The Kremlin said on Monday that it was confident its defence ministry was correct when it said that 600 Ukrainian servicemen had been “destroyed” in the attack.
As Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine grinds towards the one-year mark, Russia’s military is under domestic pressure to deliver battlefield successes.
Hawkish voices have sought an escalation of the war effort after setbacks such as loss of captured territory and high rates of death and injury. Some pro-Kremlin military bloggers criticised the Russian defence ministry claims.
“Let’s talk about ‘fraud’,” wrote one prominent pro-war military blogger on the Telegram messaging app, who posts under the name of Military Informant and who has more than half a million subscribers.
“It is not clear to us who, and for what reason, decided that 600 Ukrainian soldiers died inside, all at once, if the building was not actually hit (even the light remained on).
The militaries of both Russia and Ukraine have often overstated enemy losses, while minimising their own.
Ukraine’s top military officials said last week some 760 Russian troops had been killed or wounded in two attacks on Moscow-controlled parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. These reports could not be independently verified.