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Ukrainian servicemen fire a 2S5 Giatsint-S self-propelled howitzer towards Russian troops outside the frontline town of Bakhmut, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, on March 5.STRINGER

Russia claimed to be in control of large parts of Bakhmut on Sunday, as Ukrainian troops clung to increasingly precarious positions in the shattered city.

The fall of Bakhmut would mark the most significant victory for Russian forces in Ukraine since they captured the nearby cities of Sieverodonetsk and Lysychansk in June.

Since August, Ukrainian troops have held firm in what has become known as “Fortress Bakhmut,” forcing the invading army to take enormous casualties in a street-by-street battle for the transportation hub, which was home to 70,000 people before the war, but which is now almost completely destroyed. Nearly the entire population has fled.

Ukraine’s general staff said on Sunday that Bakhmut was under assault from three directions. If Ukrainian troops are forced to retreat from the city, they are expected to fall back to a new defensive line just a few kilometres to the west. Capturing Bakhmut – even at the reported cost of tens of thousands of casualties – would boost a flagging Russian campaign to capture the southeastern Donbas region, which is seen as a key war aim of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Taking Bakhmut would also allow Russia to move forward its heavy artillery, bringing other cities in the area into range, potentially including Kramatorsk, the administrative capital of the Ukrainian-controlled part of the Donbas. Two loud explosions were audible in the centre of Kramatorsk after nightfall on Sunday. It wasn’t immediately clear what had been hit.

A key bridge west of Bakhmut was destroyed on Friday, leaving Ukraine with only one open road – known as route 506 – via which to supply its forces in the city, or to stage a withdrawal. It’s unclear which side destroyed the bridge, and most of Route 506 is within range of Russian guns.

A senior Ukrainian security source appeared to acknowledge that the fall of Bakhmut was close to inevitable. “Not yet,” he replied when asked if the fight for the city was over during an exchange of WhatsApp messages with The Globe and Mail.

He predicted, however, that Russia would soon escalate its attacks along other parts of the front line, likely targeting the cites of Lyman, in the Donetsk region, and Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv area. Both Lyman and Kupyansk were under Russian occupation for much of 2022 until they were liberated by a Ukrainian counteroffensive last fall.

The Globe is not identifying the security source since they did not have authorization to publicly discuss the battlefield situation.

Alexander Kots, a state media journalist embedded with Russian troops near Bakhmut – which Russia calls by its Soviet name Artyemovsk – reported on his Telegram channel that Russian forces, including the Wagner mercenary group, were in control of about 40 per cent of the city on Sunday. He said Russian forces were closing a ring around the thousands of Ukrainian troops still defending the centre of the city.

The Wagner group, which has seen its ranks swollen by thousands of convicts who won release from prison by agreeing to six-month contracts to serve on the front line, has been at the centre of the ferocious close-quarters fighting. Those involved in the battle on the Ukrainian side have described waves of poorly trained Russian soldiers advancing forward – sometimes over the dead bodies of their comrades.

The grim “human wave” tactic has resulted in slow but steady Russian advances. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based military think tank, wrote in its daily situation report on Sunday that Russian forces “appear to have secured a sufficient positional advantage to conduct a turning movement against parts of Bakhmut,” referring to a military tactic that forces an opponent to abandon its defensive positions.

The ISW added that Russian troops “have not yet forced Ukrainian forces to withdraw and will not likely be able to encircle the city soon.”

Last week, Ukrainian military spokesman Serhiy Cherevaty signalled that a withdrawal from Bakhmut was at least being considered. “As long as the command sees that it makes sense to keep a certain settlement, it will be fought for,” he said in televised remarks. “If a tactical action needs to be made, it will be made.”

The assault on Bakhmut is seen as part of a widely anticipated Russian spring offensive that has yet to dramatically change the front line in Donbas. In addition to Bakhmut, Russian troops are trying to push in five or six other points along a line of contact that stretches for hundreds of kilometres, from Kupyansk and Lyman in the north to Vuhledar in the south.

On Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the Ukrainian soldiers resisting the Russian attack. “Today I would like to pay special tribute to the bravery, strength and invincibility of the warriors fighting in Donbas. It is one of the toughest battles. Painful and challenging,” he said in a video address.

A Russian tank assault on Vuhledar was recently beaten back, with the Ukrainian military publishing drone footage that appeared to show large numbers of destroyed Russian tanks abandoned on the muddy battlefield. The British Ministry of Defence said on Sunday that Russian conscripts were now being sent forward armed only with “firearms and shovels.”

“Recent evidence suggests an increase in close combat in Ukraine,” the ministry said in its daily update. “This is probably a result of the Russian command continuing to insist on offensive action largely consisting of dismounted infantry, with less support from artillery fire because Russia is short of munitions.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group, has repeatedly claimed that his troops are being “starved” of ammunition by the Russian military command.