Ukraine faced its toughest week so far this year on the eastern front, where its defenders lost more ground to Russian forces but committed enormous resources to holding Bakhmut, a coal-mining town that has acquired emblematic importance to both sides.
Russian troops have been launching probing attacks on a wide front in Donetsk, half of which they now occupy. But their main effort has been to take Bakhmut, whose eastern outskirts they hold.
“[We are] storming house by house, square metre by square metre. Hard work is going on,” said Yevgeny Prigozhin, the financier behind Wagner paramilitary company, which is heavily involved in the fighting for Bakhmut.
But Russian forces have become bogged down in this fight, and in the 51st week of the war, they changed tactics.
On February 9, it became apparent that Russia had begun an attempt to choke off Bakhmut from further resupply.
“Blocking of Ukrainian supplies began in the area of Chasov Yar and Berkhovka,” a Russian military reporter said, referring to two settlements through which Bakhmut’s lines of communication run.
“If this happens, Bakhmut will be in a tactical encirclement, and Ukrainian troops will be completely cut off from the supply of ammunition, medicines and fuel.”
The next day Britain’s Ministry of Defence said Wagner forces appeared to have advanced 2-3km (1-2 miles) around the north of Bakhmut in three days – a remarkably rapid push in a battle where front lines have barely moved for months.
It said they were now threatening the E40, Bakhmut’s northbound highway connecting it to Sloviansk.
Russian news agency Tass quoted Donetsk officials as saying that Moscow’s forces were in control of “all” access roads to Bakhmut, including the local T0504, which runs into the city from the west.