Russian forces have very likely seized the centre of the fiercely contested city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine and are threatening a key supply route for Ukrainian forces to the west, British intelligence said on Friday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday his troops would pull back from the small city, which has been the main focus of Russia's assault on Ukraine for months, if they came under risk of encirclement.

Asked to comment on the British report, a Ukrainian military command spokesman told Reuters the situation was difficult in Bakhmut and that Russian forces were concentrating all efforts to take the city but were not having "strategic success".

The battle for Bakhmut, one of the last urban centres in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk province yet to fall to Russian forces, has proven one of the bloodiest of the war.

Donetsk is one of four provinces in eastern and southern Ukraine that Russia declared annexed last year and is seeking to fully occupy in what appears to be a shift in its war aims after failing to overrun the country early in the war.

Friday's daily update from British military intelligence contrasted with the usual emphasis on Ukrainian successes.

"Russia has made further gains and has now highly likely advanced into the town centre, and has seized the west bank of the Bakhmutka River. Ukraine's key 0506 supply route to the west of the town is likely severely threatened," it said.

Eastern Military Command spokesperson Serhiy Cherevatyi said Ukraine controlled the situation in Bakhmut and understood Russian intentions.

"The situation is difficult, the enemy is concentrating maximum efforts to capture Bakhmut. However it is suffering serious losses and not reaching strategic success," Cherevatyi said by telephone, without elaborating.

Western analysts say both sides are losing large numbers of troops in the battle for Bakhmut, where Moscow has said it has taken control of the city, including part of the centre.

Ukraine has said it is fighting on there to wear down Russian forces before a counter-offensive bolstered by advanced Western-supplied weapons.

A regional transport and logistics hub now largely in ruins, Bakhmut would give Russia a stepping stone to advance on two bigger cities it has long coveted in Donetsk province: Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

Zelenskiy, who has portrayed "Fortress Bakhmut" as a symbol of defiance, told CNN last month that he feared Russian forces would have "an open road" to the two cities if they took Bakhmut, and said his order to hold it was a tactical decision.

Ukrainian military expert Vladyslav Selezniov said Ukraine would be able to defend positions in the more heavily built-up west of Bakhmut if the 0506 route to the west, the "road of life" for getting supplies in and wounded out, stayed open.

"Otherwise, they will have to move to other defensive positions," he told Ukrainian NV Radio on Thursday.



Millions of Ukrainians have fled the conflict, which has laid waste to many towns and cities and killed thousands of civilians.

Authorities in Russian-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine said seven civilians were killed on Thursday in two separate Ukrainian artillery strikes, Russian news agencies reported.

There was no immediate comment from the Ukrainian side, which regularly reports civilian casualties from artillery and air strikes on its energy infrastructure.

Both sides deny targeting civilians.

Moscow says it invaded Ukraine in February 2022 because its moves towards the West threatened Russia's own security, and Russian authorities have since cracked down on internal dissent.

Alexei Moskalyov, a Russian man who was charged with discrediting the country's army after his daughter drew an anti-war picture, is being held in Belarus, Russian state-owned news agency TASS reported, citing the Russian embassy in the country. Belarus is a close ally of Russia.

The Kremlin says it will not consider peace in Ukraine unless Kyiv accepts the loss of the territories Russia has annexed. Ukraine says it posed no threat to Russia and there can be no negotiations until Russia withdraws all its forces.

Turkey is concerned about the potential intensification of the conflict in the spring, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a joint news conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Ankara.

Lavrov reiterated that Russia's security concerns were ignored by the West and said its interests must be taken into account. Asked if he would meet with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the United Nations headquarters, Lavrov said Moscow would never refuse serious proposals for dialogue.


(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth, Ronald Popeski and Reuters bureaux: Writing by Stephen Coates and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Robert Birsel, Clarence Fernandez and Mark Heinrich)