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Soldiers prepare to fire on Russian positions close to Bakhmut, in Ukraine's Donetsk region, Wednesday, March 8, 2023.LIBKOS/The Associated Press

Russian forces appeared to be in control of the eastern half of Bakhmut on Wednesday, as public mourning for two Ukrainian fighters killed near the city highlighted the high cost of a battle that has already lasted more than seven months.

One of the Ukrainian soldiers softly uttered the words “Slava Ukraini” – “Glory to Ukraine” – just before he was executed on camera in an apparent war crime.

As Ukraine promised to find those responsible for his death, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder of Russia’s Wagner Group mercenary force, posted a video that shows him standing beside a monument to a Soviet tank near the centre of Bakhmut, just east of the river that divides the city in two.

“Everything east of the Bakhmutka River is completely under the control of Wagner,” Mr. Prigozhin said via his Telegram channel. In the video, in which he mentions that it’s March 8, he is wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet while cradling what appears to be a modified Kalashnikov assault rifle.

In a sign that Wagner’s control of the area is far from assured, two fighters can be seen keeping watch behind Mr. Prigozhin, repeatedly peering west toward the far side of the river as Mr. Prigozhin speaks from behind the cover of the tank monument. The lighting suggests the video was filmed just before dawn.

Wagner’s apparent advance came a day after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered his country’s military to reinforce, rather than withdraw, from, Bakhmut, which has been devastated over the course of Russia’s prolonged assault. Drone footage published by both sides shows a city in ruins, with entire neighbourhoods reduced to blackened rubble. Ukraine says 4,000 of the city’s prewar 70,000 residents remain in the city, despite a lack of electricity, heat and water.

In a Tuesday interview with CNN, Mr. Zelensky explained the decision to continue defending Bakhmut – a key transportation hub – by saying a Russian takeover of the area would give the invading forces an “open road” to other major population centres in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, specifically naming the nearby cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. “This is tactical for us,” he said. “We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further … That’s why our guys are standing there.”

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu made the same assessment this week, saying that capturing Bakhmut – which he referred to by its Soviet-era name, Artyomovsk – would be a precursor to “further offensive actions into the Ukrainian military’s defensive lines.”

On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg sounded a pessimistic note about the course of the battle. “What we see is that Russia is throwing in more troops, more forces. What Russia lacks in quality they try to make up in quantity,” he told reporters in Stockholm. “They have suffered big losses, but at the same time we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days.”

Mr. Stoltenberg said that while the fate of Bakhmut would not necessarily determine the course of the war, “it just highlights that we should not underestimate Russia, we must continue to provide support to Ukraine.”

As fierce battles rage in the Donetsk region, Avdiivka police evacuate families with children from the most dangerous zones on the frontline.

The Associated Press

The fight for Bakhmut continues to take a heavy toll on both sides. On Wednesday Ukraine was mourning the loss of two soldiers that Mr. Zelensky hailed as heroes.

In a shocking video that was posted online Monday, a then-unknown Ukrainian soldier smokes a cigarette as he stands in a shallow, freshly dug ditch that will become his grave. The soldier takes a last puff, looks directly at whomever is holding the camera and quietly says, “Slava Ukraini” before he is killed in a hail of automatic gunfire as the shooter curses him in Russian.

On Tuesday, the Ukrainian military tentatively identified the victim as Timofey Shadura, a 40-year-old member of the 30th Mechanized Regiment. A native of the central Zhytomyr region, he had joined the army in December and had gone missing near Bakhmut on Feb. 3. (However, online sleuths suggested Wednesday that another soldier, Oleksandr Matsievsky, was the man in the video. Mr. Shadura’s family said they were waiting for official confirmation, which can only take place after the body is recovered.)

Executing unarmed prisoners is considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. The clip appears to have originally been posted by a unit of the Wagner Group, which was already infamous for its ruthless approach to warfare in Africa and the Middle East. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Wagner has bolstered its ranks with thousands of Russian prisoners, promising them pardons for their crimes if they serve six months on the front line.

On Tuesday, as Mr. Shadura was being saluted as a hero across Ukraine for his defiant last words, another, more famous soldier fell.

Dmytro Kotsyubailo first rose to prominence nine years ago, during the uprising against the Russian-backed Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych. Mr. Kotsyubailo, just 18 at the time, was an activist in the nationalist Right Sector movement, a prominent force in the protests that grew into what Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to Mr. Yanukovych’s 2014 ouster by seizing and annexing the Crimean Peninsula and by launching a proxy war in the Donbas region that set the stage for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine eight years later. As soon as the initial fighting broke out, Mr. Kotsyubailo went straight from protesting on the streets of Kyiv to joining a unit of volunteer fighters on the front line in Donbas.

Within a year, he was a company commander. Code named “Da Vinci” because of his dream of becoming an artist, he instead spent his entire adult life as a soldier. In 2021, Mr. Zelensky named him a Hero of Ukraine “for personal courage in the defence of state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” He is believed to be one of the youngest people, and the first volunteer fighter, to receive the honour.

On Tuesday his unit, Da Vinci’s Wolves, announced that Mr. Kotsyubailo had died at age 27, fighting somewhere near Bakhmut.

Ukrainian and Western officials say Russia has suffered between 20,000 and 30,000 casualties in the battle for Bakhmut, while Russia says Ukraine lost 11,000 fighters in the city in February alone. The claims are impossible to verify, but in urban warfare situations, invading armies have historically suffered casualty rates several times higher than those of city defenders.

Russia has been accused of using “human wave” tactics in its effort to take Bakhmut, with poorly trained conscripts forced to advance over the bodies of their dead comrades.