Briain’s defense ministry said Sunday in an intelligence update about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that Russia seems undecided about where the greatest threat from Ukraine lies.
In the update, posted on Twitter, the ministry said, “The way Russia has worked on improving defenses suggests commanders are highly likely pre-occupied with the potential for major Ukrainian offensive action in two sectors: either in northern Luhansk Oblast, or in Zaporizhzhia. A major Ukrainian breakthrough in Zaporizhzhia would seriously challenge the viability of Russia’s ‘land bridge’ linking Russia’s Rostov region and Crimea; Ukrainian success in Luhansk would further undermine Russia’s professed war aim of liberating’ the Donbas.
“Deciding which of these threats to prioritize countering,” the report said, is “likely one of the central dilemmas for Russian operational planners.”
Shelling rocked the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut on Saturday, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of a 36-hour cease-fire to observe eastern Orthodox Christmas.
Artillery fire could be heard on both sides of the front line in Bakhmut, where Russian forces have concentrated much of their firepower trying to push west toward Kramatorsk.
What was once a city of 70,000 people is now a city mostly abandoned, its reduced population kept alive by volunteers who help maintain invincibility centers, which are often tents set up to offer electricity, internet service, heat, water and medicine.
“When we visited another invincibility point yesterday for 15-20 minutes, a rocket hit us. It damaged a volunteer vehicle, killed one person, and injured four,” Vasyl Lieslin, a humanitarian volunteer wearing a helmet and a flak jacket, told Reuters reporters on the ground.
“Volunteers were injured, and one local Bakhmut volunteer lost a limb and was evacuated. I hope that people were in their protective gear, but the situation is unclear. We know they were seriously injured,” Lieslin said.
Olha, who would not give her surname, scoffed at Putin’s empty gesture of any Christmas respite from Russia’s onslaught.
“I think they’re tricking us, it’s pretty obvious to me,” she said.
“What else can I tell you? If someone makes a promise, that someone must fulfill it. Promises are made to be kept. I just don’t understand, what do they need?” she said to Reuters reporters.
Russia shelled dozens of places along the front line during the cease-fire, the general staff of the Ukrainian armed forces said. Russia said it was only returning fire when fired upon.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which is fighting alongside regular Russian army troops in the battle of Bakhmut, said on Telegram he wanted to capture the small town because it contained “underground cities” that can hold troops and tanks.
“The cherry on the cake is the system of Soledar and Bakhmut mines, which is actually a network of underground cities. It not only [has the ability to hold] a big group of people at a depth of 80-100 meters, but tanks and infantry fighting vehicles can also move about,” Prigozhin said on Telegram.
Prigozhin, who likely would see his political influence in Moscow boosted if Bakhmut fell to Russia given Wagner’s role in the fighting there, said stockpiles of weapons had been stored in the underground complexes since World War I.
His comments were a reference to vast salt and other mines in the area, which contain more than 100 miles of tunnels and a vast underground room that has hosted football matches and classical music concerts in more peaceful times.
Prigozhin, also called Bakhmut “a serious logistics center” with unique defensive fortifications.
Russia’s heavy losses over a five-month effort to advance in Bakhmut has led some Western military analysts to say that any Russian victory there, if it happens, would be pyrrhic.