KYIV, Ukraine — Aid groups and civilians will not be able to enter Bakhmut starting on Monday, Ukraine’s military said, as fighting continued to intensify in Russia’s monthslong campaign to seize the strategic city in eastern Ukraine.
The Ukrainian Army said that it would no longer allow aid groups in the city because of the danger posed by street fighting. The ban on volunteer access could suggest a prelude to a Ukrainian withdrawal, although the Ukrainian military has insisted it retains control of the city, can resupply troops and can evacuate its own wounded.
After months of withering bombardment, Russian forces, including both regular troops and mercenaries from the Wagner private military company, now appear to have surrounded Bakhmut on three sides. Ukraine’s military said that street fighting had commenced in two neighborhoods, and that the one remaining road that Ukrainian forces use to gain access to the city was under Russian fire.
Speaking in a video address posted online, a Ukrainian commander who goes by the nickname Madyar said the ban on aid organizations entering Bakhmut was necessary because the fighting now “exposes to danger even volunteers who come here with good intentions to help.”
The decision to close access to the city for aid groups suggests that the Ukrainian military cannot secure even areas in the city that for months had been considered relatively safe, such as neighborhoods on the western bank of the Bakhmutka River, which are farther from the range of Russian artillery strikes. It was yet another indication that Russian forces were edging closer to taking the city.
Ukraine has made Bakhmut, a midsize city in the Donbas region with a prewar population of about 70,000, into a symbol of its tenacious resistance to the Russian onslaught in eastern Ukraine. The city lies in ruins, and just a few thousand civilians remain there, but it is an important prize for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who has poured troops into the battle for a city seen as key to his stated goal of seizing the entire Donbas area of eastern Ukraine.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense said Monday that Russian forces had taken the village of Krasna Gora, on the northern edge of Bakhmut, as they continue their advance on the city. The statement on Telegram, a social messaging app, came a day after the Wagner private military company, whose forces have helped lead Russia’s campaign to seize Bakhmut, said that its “assault units” had taken the village.
In an assessment of the battlefield on Monday, Rochan Consulting, an analytical group based in Poland, noted Russia’s encroached on Bakhmut from the north and the south in recent days and said the city could fall as soon as this week.
Ukraine’s military repelled 19 assaults on Bakhmut over the past 24 hours, Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, the spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern military command, said in an interview on Monday.
“Bakhmut is the epicenter of the enemy’s attack and therefore the situation is critical,” he said, but added that no watershed moment had been reached. Bakhmut, he said, “is under Ukrainian control.”
Russian forces are sending small units slipping into the city, Colonel Cherevaty said, but he said they have not yet gained a foothold. The Ukrainian military is continuing to “inflict heavy personnel losses on the enemy,” he said, suggesting that Kyiv’s forces would keep fighting in the embattled city.
Bakhmut has been under Russian bombardment since last spring, but in the fall, Moscow’s forces pivoted to attacking the city with prisoner brigades, driving conscripts into near-suicidal assaults in a bid to overwhelm Ukrainian defensive lines.
Russian forces have pounded Ukrainian positions with thousands of artillery shells a day, clawing yard by yard through multiple lines of the city defenses. Into this crucible of violence, aid groups had continued sending volunteers carrying food and medicine and those who tried to evacuate civilians. The army would now provide aid to those who need it, Madyar said in the video.
“Bakhmut was, is and remains Ukrainian — that is our main slogan,” he said, speaking during what he characterized as a lull in artillery shelling on Sunday, even though repeated explosions could be heard on the recording.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.