Russia and Ukraine pounded each other’s forces in heavy fighting around the small eastern city of Bakhmut on Tuesday, as Kyiv’s allies pledged just over 1 billion euros ($1.05 billion) to help Ukrainians survive the freezing winter.
Invading Russian forces have fought to seize Bakhmut for months as part of a grinding battle for control of the Donetsk region, one of four territories in Ukraine the Kremlin claims to have annexed since its Feb. 24 invasion in votes rejected by most countries as illegal.
“They’re shelling really hard, there’s shelling, especially at night,” Valentyna, 70, told Reuters as she fled Bakhmut, now largely reduced to rubble by incessant bombardment.
“The house would shake and every minute, second you expect it could crumble around you and that’d be it. I couldn’t even sleep in the last week, so I decided to leave,” she added.
Valentyna, who declined to give her surname, spoke in a van evacuating her via the town of Kostiantynivka to the relative safety of Ukrainian-controlled Pokrovsk.
Although Bakhmut, once a city of 80,000 people, straddles a road to other important towns, military analysts do not see it as a major strategic goal for Russia. It has been the focus of an assault largely driven by fighters from Russia’s private military company Wagner Group, according to the Institute for the Study of War.
Ukraine has said Russian forces are suffering huge losses in the brutal dug-in trench warfare on the eastern front. Britain’s defence ministry has said the high cost of capturing Bakhmut could make it a mainly symbolic and political objective.
In its evening update, Ukraine’s armed forces General Staff said 60 Russian soldiers were killed and 100 injured in a weekend strike in the neighbouring province of Luhansk.
A civilian official earlier said the attack hit a building being used as barracks for Wagner Group soldiers. The Ukrainian General Staff did not mention the Wagner Group.
Neither Wagner nor the Russian government confirmed the strike. Reuters could not independently verify the Ukrainian accounts.
Moscow is also hammering Ukraine’s energy infrastructure with waves of missiles and drones, at times cutting off electricity for millions of civilians who are enduring Europe’s biggest conflict since World War Two.
Air raid sirens wailed across Ukraine on Tuesday afternoon, but no new attacks were reported and the all-clear sounded later.
In Paris, about 70 countries and institutions pledged just over 1 billion euros ($1.05 billion) to help maintain Ukraine’s water, food, energy, health and transport in face of Russia’s attacks, French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had said Ukraine needed at least 800 million euros ($840 million). “It’s a lot, but the price is less than the cost of blackouts,” Zelensky told the meeting via video link.
French President Emmanuel Macron said there was an agreement on removing heavy weapons from Ukraine’s Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant and that talks were under way on the way to do this.
Denis Pushilin, Russian-installed administrator of the portion of Donetsk province held by Moscow, told Russian media that just over half of the Donetsk People’s Republic had been “liberated”. The self-styled republic is a breakaway Russian-backed entity that has fought Ukrainian forces since 2014.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the report.
Fighting in the region in recent weeks has left unclear which parts of Donetsk are under Russian and Ukrainian control.
Three civilians were killed in Donetsk over the past 24 hours, regional Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on his Telegram channel, while in the southern Kherson region, governor Yaroslav Yanushevych reported three people killed by Russian artillery.
As well as destroying Bakhmut, Russia’s sustained shelling of the frontline in Donetsk has heavily damaged the city of Avdiivka in the region’s centre, Zelensky said on Friday.
On Monday, Ukraine’s General Staff said Russia kept concentrating its efforts to advance and capture both cities, hitting Ukrainian defensive positions in several towns near Bakhmut with tank, mortar and artillery fire.
Vladimir Rogov, a Russian-installed official in the Zaporizhzhia region, late on Monday shared video on Telegram of what he said was a damaged bridge linking a suburb to Melitopol, a Russian-occupied city Ukraine sees as vital to Russia’s defence of territory it holds in the south, including Crimea.
Reuters could not independently confirm the report. Ivan Fedorov, Melitopol’s exiled mayor, also shared video taken from the perspective of a vehicle approaching what appeared to be the bridge and then reversing away from a section that had buckled.
Fedorov drew a parallel with an attack in October on a more strategically significant road-and-rail bridge connecting Russia with the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine of orchestrating that blast and Moscow unleashed retaliatory strikes on Ukrainian cities including the capital Kyiv.
There are no peace talks under way to end the conflict, which Moscow describes as a “special military operation” against security threats posed by its neighbour. Ukraine and its Western allies call it an unprovoked, imperialist land grab.
Russia on Tuesday dismissed a peace proposal from Zelensky that would involve a pullout of Russian troops and demanded Kyiv accept new territorial “realities” that included Russia’s addition of four Ukrainian regions as its “new subjects”.