Ukrainian soldiers fighting in “Fortress” Bakhmut are close to being cut off from their supply lines as Russian forces came within firing distance of the last remaining roads out of the city.
Fighting was said to be “ferocious”, with Russian mercenaries said to be confronting Ukrainian defenders for “every stairwell” in the shredded streets.
“The armed forces of Ukraine are not retreating anywhere. They are fighting to the last,” said Yevgeny Prigozhin, who leads the Wagner mercenary group.
“In the northern quarters of Artemivsk, there are fierce battles for every street, every house, every stairwell.”
Artemivsk was the name of the city until 2016, when it was renamed Bakhmut.
Throughout the six-month-long battle, Wagner mercenaries have led attacks on Bakhmut, which lies in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, capturing the neighbouring town of Soledar but suffering horrendous casualties.
Ukrainian fighters have described human waves of Russian mercenaries made up of convicts recruited from Russian prisons attacking their positions. Russia is now recruiting women prisoners as they run out of cannon fodder, Ukraine said on Sunday.
Although control of Bakhmut is still contested, the British Ministry of Defence has confirmed that Russian forces are gaining the upper hand and that they can now shell the M03 and the H32 roads, Ukraine’s main supply lines into the town.
“While multiple alternative cross-country supply routes remain available to Ukrainian forces, Bakhmut is increasingly isolated,” it said.
Bakhmut, which before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine had a population of 73,000, has become perhaps the most fiercely fought-over town on the front line. The town has been destroyed and scorched trees scar the surrounding fields.
Military analysts have questioned its strategic worth but there is no doubting its psychological value.
Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, called it “Fortress Bakhmut” and said that it would never be surrendered. He also said that the Ukrainian army was throwing more men into combat in Bakhmut.
In January, Russian forces took control of Soledar. They have also said that they have captured the nearby village of Bilohorivka, although this was denied by Serhiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk.
He said: “Our troops remain in their positions, nobody has captured Bilohorivka, nobody has entered there, there is no enemy there.”
Military analysts said that the Russian army may have been using Bakhmut to keep their Ukrainian adversaries distracted while they prepare an assault across the front line.
In Kharkiv, now about 80 miles from the front line, The Telegraph witnessed the aftermath of a Russian missile strike which hit a residential building and part of a university at about 8.20am.
One missile landed just outside the 19th-century block of flats in the city centre, blowing a large crater in the road.
The rector of the university told reporters that it was empty, except for a few security guards. One of them was lightly injured. News reports later said that, altogether, three people were injured in the attack.
Kyiv said that Russia had fired S-300 anti-aircraft rockets at Kharkiv. Moscow has been using S-300 missiles in a ground attack role throughout the war, although they were designed as a defensive missile.
Russia has been running out of more accurate ballistic and cruise missiles, instead deploying a range of other missiles to hit Ukrainian cities.
Ihor Terekhov, the mayor of Kharkiv, said there were no military targets near the area hit by the Russian missiles and accused Moscow of “just trying bit by bit to destroy Kharkiv”.