Russian troops have been trying to close their circle around the small mining town of Bakhmut as rain and an early spring thaw have turned the battlefields in eastern Ukraine to mud, which could hinder both sides as they try to take the initiative in the war.
The spring thaw, known as the “rasputitsa”, has a long history of ruining armies’ plans to attack Ukraine and western Russia, turning roads into rivers and fields into impenetrable swamps.
In the frontline Donetsk region, Ukrainian soldiers crouch in muddy trenches after suddenly warmer weather softened the frozen ground.
“Both sides stay in place because, as you see, spring means mud. So it’s impossible to move forward,” said 59-year-old Mykola, commander of a front-line Ukrainian missile launcher battery, looking at a tablet screen for the coordinates to fire.
Volodymyr, a 25-year-old platoon commander, said his men in a trench carved deep into the ground in a zigzag pattern were prepared to operate in any weather.
“If we get a target, that means we have to destroy it,” he said.
Russia is trying to encircle Bakhmut and force Ukraine to withdraw its garrison. That would earn Moscow its first major prize in more than half a year after one of the bloodiest phases of the war so far: a relentless Russian attack that began over frozen ground.
Russian forces have been replenished with hundreds of thousands of reservists called up late last year, Russia has intensified its attacks in several locations along the front in the east. Western countries say several attacks by Russia have failed at great cost.
But Moscow’s troops have made it clear that they are advancing, albeit slowly, north and south of Bakhmut as they try to cut off Ukrainian forces in the devastated city, which was once home to about 75,000 people.
“Cruel fighting takes place there. The command is doing everything it can to prevent the enemy from advancing through our territory,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command, told Ukrainian television when describing the situation around Bakhmut.
Moscow, for its part, said on Monday it destroyed a Ukrainian munitions depot near Bakhmut and shot down US missiles and Ukrainian drones. It was not possible to independently confirm the reports.
Two killed in drone attack in Russia
Meanwhile, a Russian strike with Iranian-made drones killed two people and injured three in the western Ukrainian city of Khmelnytskyi early Monday, the mayor said.
Mayor Oleksandr Symchyshyn said in social media posts that two rescue workers had died at the hospital following the attack by more than a dozen drones.
“Unfortunately, we have another hospital death,” he said in a second statement after previously reporting the first death. “Doctors failed to save the life of another hero – a savior.”
The victims were Vladyslav Dvorak, 21, and Sergiy Sevruk, 31, Ukrainian Interior Minister Igor Klymenko said on Facebook.
The two rescuers responded to the first wave of an attack when “the enemy fired again, deliberately, at our heroes without weapons,” Klymenko said.
The Russian army said it hit a special operations command center near the town of Khmelnytsky.
Jelen in Kiev
In Kiev, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen became the last senior Western official to visit the Ukrainian capital, promising aid and increased measures to isolate Russia. US President Joe Biden went there a week ago to celebrate the first anniversary of the war.
“America will support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Yellen told Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, flanked by sandbags in the cabinets.
Yellen announced the transfer of the first $1.25 billion of the latest $9.9 billion package of economic and budgetary assistance from Washington and visited a school where teacher salaries are reimbursed with US aid.
Ukraine’s armed forces have mainly focused on taking up defensive positions in recent weeks, but are expected to mount a counter-offensive with new weapons pledged by the West.
“I really want to [victory] will happen this year,” Zelenskyy said in a post on the Telegram messaging app on Monday. “We have everything for this: motivation, trust, friends, diplomacy.”
At the one-year anniversary of the war last week, both sides tried to show their resolve for a second year of fighting.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who launched the invasion, gave a major speech in which he denounced the last remaining nuclear arms control treaty with the United States, but announced no major initiatives to change the course of the war.
China, which showed support for Russia by sending its top diplomat to Moscow last week, has issued a call for peace.
The move has been met with skepticism in the West, but has been generally welcomed by both Kiev and Moscow. Washington has said in recent days that it is concerned that China could send weapons to Russia, which Beijing denies.
Russia says the invasion was justified by a security threat from Ukraine. Kiev calls it an unprovoked attempt to subjugate an independent state.
Ukraine’s outnumbered troops repelled Russia’s attack on Kiev last year and recaptured significant territory, but Moscow still occupies nearly a fifth of Ukraine, which it claims to have annexed.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers were reported to have been killed on both sides.