Ukrainian troops are holding out against attacks by Russian forces in two eastern towns, while those on the southern front are poised to battle for the strategic Kherson region, which Russia appears to be reinforcing.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in his daily address to the nation on Wednesday, said fighting remained intense in the eastern Donbas region near Bakhmut, a town Russia’s Wagner forces have made a concerted push to seize.
“The situation on the front line hasn’t changed significantly,” Zelenskyy said. “The fiercest battles are in the Donetsk region, towards Bakhmut and Avdiivka.
“This is where the craziness of the Russian command is most evident,” he added. “Day after day, for months, they are driving people to their deaths there, concentrating the highest level of artillery strikes.”
Ilona Ierhilieieva, is one of the Bakhmut residents who are struggling because of active military operations.
“People who left, moved to their children or brothers and sisters, they had places to go,” she told Al Jazeera. “But as for us, we don’t have a place to go, that’s why we are here.”
Roman Zhylenkov, a volunteer with the non-governmental organisation Vostok-SOS, said more people want to leave Bakhmut.
“I have feeling that there are more and more people. I thought that almost everyone left, but now we see more willing to evacuate, mostly with cats,” he said.
Looming battle for Kherson
Much of the front line remains off limits to journalists, but in the main southern front, Russians were apparently fortifying their positions in Kherson city.
At least 70,000 people have left their homes in Kherson province in the space of a week, a Moscow-installed official, Vladimir Saldo, told a regional TV channel. Ukraine has previously dubbed the evacuation “a propaganda show”.
Pro-Kremlin authorities have sought to move residents to the Russian-controlled areas on the left bank of the river but do not plan to pull out any forces, as Ukraine troops are expected to make a bid for the main urban area on the right bank.
Kherson is one of four partially occupied Ukrainian provinces Russia claims to have annexed following its invasion of Ukraine in late February.
It includes the only land route to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia seized in 2014, and the mouth of the Dnieper river, a vital economic artery that bisects Ukraine.
Officials and military analysts say the looming battle for Kherson city will determine whether Ukraine can loosen Russia’s grip on the south, describing it as one of the most consequential since the start of the war.
At one section north of the Russian-occupied pocket on the west bank of the Dnieper, Ukrainian soldiers said Russian shelling was stepping up again after having tailed off in recent weeks, according to Reuters news agency.
Intermittent artillery fire echoed from both sides, with towers of smoke rising in the distance. A Ukrainian helicopter gunship swept low over fields, released rockets at the Russian positions and wheeled around spitting flares to distract any heat-seeking anti-aircraft rockets fired at it.
Radio intercepts, meanwhile, indicated newly mobilised recruits had been sent to the front and Russian forces were firmly dug in.
“The fortified positions that the enemy has established are concrete and they have a minimum of three lines of defence,” a Ukrainian army commander, who identified himself as Mykola, told Al Jazeera last week near Shevchenkove.
“The Russian army should not be underestimated,” he said.
Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, said on Wednesday wet weather and rough terrain were making the counteroffensive in Kherson harder than it was in the northeast, where it pushed Russia back in September.
Since Russia began losing ground in recent weeks, President Vladimir Putin has taken a series of steps to intensify the war, calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists, proclaiming the annexation of occupied land and repeatedly threatening to use nuclear weapons to defend Russia.
On Wednesday, Putin monitored drills of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces involving multiple practice launches of ballistic and cruise missiles, with state television broadcasts dominated by footage of submarines, strategic bombers and missile forces practising launches in retaliation for an atomic attack.
This month, Russia launched a new campaign of bombardment using missiles and drones allegedly made in Iran against Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, also hitting parks and homes across the country.
Russians continued to “terrorise” the Kyiv region, launching several attacks on Wednesday night, governor Oleksiy Kuleba said on the Telegram messaging app.
“The elimination of the fire and the consequences of the attack is ongoing,” he said, adding there were no casualties.
Despite the rising tensions, United Nations aid chief Martin Griffiths said he was “relatively optimistic” that a UN-brokered deal that allowed a resumption of Ukraine’s Black Sea grain exports would be extended beyond mid-November.