BAKHMUT, Ukraine — Surrounded on three sides, this eastern Ukrainian city has held out for months in a bloody challenge against invading forces, Russian shells pounding snow and rubble-covered streets day and night.

But as Kremlin troops advance here and threaten a major offensive on the front lines, gunshots were heard on a recent visit as the few thousand remaining locals took refuge in cellars, stubbornly refusing to leave what remains. from their homes.

«Bakhmut hold on» is a patriotic rallying cry heard across the country, cementing the city as a symbol of national resistance.

And it still holds up, for now.

‘Death is not an option’

The long-awaited spring offensive of the Russian army is expected in the next few weeks, if it has not started yet. Analysts have warned that Moscow’s forces, seeking a high-profile victory to coincide with the anniversary of the February 24 invasion, may finally be on the verge of taking the city.

The Bakhmut people are all too familiar with the heaviest fighting of the war, and many live in shelters for up to six months. His resolve and determination remain unwavering.

Olena Molchanova, 40, is one of three doctors treating the few thousand people left behind from an estimated pre-war population of around 80,000. She lives with her husband in the basement below her clinic, where she works seven days a week, morning to night. Her 18-year-old daughter has fled to the relative safety of the capital, Kyiv.

Of the three patients to visit during the NBC News trip, two were recording deaths. This is an everyday reality, she said. But she won’t leave.

«I am here because the people who are still here need medical help, need treatment. How can I leave them?» she said. «Death is not an option for me… I don’t want to die, I have a reason to live, I have a job to do.»

Dr. Olena Molchanova, a family doctor who lives in a makeshift shelter below her Bakhmut clinic.Dean Taylor/NBC News

There is only one road here under Ukrainian control.

The path plunges into a snow-covered valley and is clearly visible to the Russian positions on the nearby hills. “This part is dangerous,” the Ukrainian military escort told NBC News. «We must go fast.»

Apartment blocks, offices, schools, shops and entire streets are in ruins. If Russia seizes this city, it will take control of a place that is depleted and largely destroyed.

Battles rage for the city of Vuhledar, also in the Donetsk region, and increasingly in the neighboring Lugansk region. Together, the two areas comprise the eastern Donbas, a large swath of the country famous for its industrial output and one that Russian President Vladimir Putin seems intent on seizing to match his declared annexation of it.

The Wagner Group of mercenaries led by Putin’s ally Yevgeny Prigozhin participated in the seizure of the nearby mining town of Soledar in January, helping lead the assault on Bakhmut with waves of ex-convicts thrown at the Ukrainian lines. Prigozhin has been eager to claim credit for the gains, in what many experts interpreted as part of a growing internal power struggle.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a news conference on Tuesday that his forces «were successfully conducting operations» near Bakhmut.

A map produced by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, showed that Russian forces at least claim significant territory to the south and east of the city, which they plan to connect with the large swaths of the city. east and east of the city. southern Ukraine is already in the hands of Moscow.