Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed not to retreat from Bakhmut as Russian troops push into the devastated eastern city they spent six months trying to capture at the cost of thousands of lives.
Less than a week ago, an adviser to Zelensky said the defenders could withdraw from Bakhmut and fall back to nearby positions.
But Mr. Zelensky chaired a meeting on Monday at which the military top spoke “in favor of continuing the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut,” his office said.
Later, in his nightly video address, the president said his advisers had unanimously agreed to continue fighting, “not retreat” and strengthen Ukrainian defenses.
Zelensky’s top adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, said no decision to withdraw has been made due to “a consensus among the military on the need to continue defending the city” and the crushing of enemy forces “while new defense lines are being built.”
A Ukrainian soldier sits in a tank at the front near Bakhmut
A Ukrainian soldier carries a grenade in front of a 2S5 Giatsint-S self-propelled howitzer before firing at Russian troops outside the frontline town of Bakhmut
Fought around Bakhmut for six months with both sides suffering significant casualties
By pressing defense, Ukraine has depleted Russia’s main combat-ready groups and trained tens of thousands of Ukrainian military personnel for a possible counter-offensive, he said.
Intense Russian shelling targeted the city in the Donetsk region and nearby villages, while Moscow launched a three-sided attack to try and end Bakhmut’s resistance.
The nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka came under heavy shelling, damaging cars and houses and setting fires. No casualties were immediately reported.
Police and volunteers evacuated people from Chasiv Yar and other frontline towns in an operation complicated by the loss of bridges and constant artillery fire that left barely a house standing.
Russian forces failed to deliver a knockout blow that allowed them to capture Bakhmut. Analysts say it has no great strategic value and its capture is unlikely to serve as a turning point in the conflict.
Russian pressure on Bakhmut reflects the Kremlin’s broader struggle to gain momentum on the battlefield. The full-scale invasion of Moscow on February 24, 2022 quickly came to a halt and Ukraine launched a largely successful counter-offensive.
During the bitterly cold winter months, fighting has largely stalled.
The importance of the city has become mainly symbolic.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a victory there would finally bring good news from the front.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has refused to surrender the city
For Kiev, the display of determination and defiance reinforces a message that Ukraine retains after a year of relentless attacks, justifying continued support from its Western allies.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin endorsed that view Monday, saying during a visit to Jordan that Bakhmut has “more of a symbolic value than … strategic and operational value.”
Moscow, he added, continues to send “many ill-trained and ill-equipped troops” to Bakhmut, while Ukraine elsewhere is patiently building “military strength” ahead of a potential spring offensive with Western military support.
Still, some analysts question the wisdom of ordering Ukrainian defenders to hold out much longer. Others suggest that a tactical withdrawal may already be underway.
Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the Can think tank in Arlington, Virginia, said Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut has been effective because it has exhausted Russia’s war effort, but Kiev now needs to look ahead.
“Bakhmut’s tenacious defense has achieved much, expending Russian manpower and ammunition,” Kofman tweeted late Sunday. “But strategies can reach points of diminishing returns, and as Ukraine seeks to divert resources on an offensive, this could hinder the success of a more important operation.”
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, said Kiev’s smartest option now may be to retreat to positions that are easier to defend.
“Ukrainian forces are unlikely to pull out of Bakhmut all at once and are pursuing a gradual withdrawal to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare,” the ISW said in a report published late Sunday.
The Bakhmut battle exposed Russia’s military shortcomings and bitter divisions.
evgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, addresses Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to withdraw remaining Ukrainian troops from Bakhmut
A Ukrainian soldier sits in a trench near Russian positions near Bakhmut
Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer at Russian positions near Bakhmut
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire and owner of the Wagner Group military company that led the Bakhmut offensive, is at odds with the Russian Defense Ministry, repeatedly accusing it of not supplying his troops with ammunition.
On Sunday, he again criticized the top military army for being slow to deliver the promised ammunition and questioned whether the delay was caused by “red tape or betrayal.”
On Monday, Mr Prigozhin said in a Russian social media post that the situation in Bakhmut will turn out to be “a pie”: the filling is the parts of Ukraine’s armed forces that are surrounded by us (in case, of course, if there is a full encirclement of Bakhmut), and the grenade is in fact the Wagner’ Group.
Bakhmut has acquired an almost mythical significance. It has just become Mariupol – the port city in the same province that Russia captured last year after an 82-day siege that ultimately came down to a giant steel mill where determined Ukrainian fighters held out alongside civilians.
Moscow tried to solidify its rule in Mariupol. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has visited some of the city’s rebuilt infrastructure – a newly built hospital, a rescue center and residential buildings – the defense ministry said.
Ukraine’s top military commanders have vowed to continue to defend the besieged city of Bakhmut, where Russia hopes to make its first major war win in more than half a year, and will strengthen their defenses, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said.
Amid some of the bloodiest fighting of the more than year-long invasion, Moscow says capturing the city would be a step towards its main goal of seizing the entire territory of the surrounding Donbas region.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces reported late Monday that the city and surrounding areas are “constantly under attack” because “the enemy does not reckon with losses.”
Following Russian gains in recent weeks, at the height of a winter offensive, Ukrainian troops have reinforced positions west of Bakhmut in apparent preparation for a possible retreat.
Late Monday, however, Zelensky said that at a meeting of top military officials, he had asked the commander of the regional group and the commander-in-chief of Ukraine how they planned to proceed.
“Both generals reacted not to withdraw, but to strengthen (our defenses),” he said in his nightly speech.
“I told the commander-in-chief to find the right forces to help our men in Bakhmut.”
A Ukrainian sniper watches a Russian position from a trench in Bakhmut
A Ukrainian soldier flies a drone to spot Russian positions near the city of Bakhmut
A Ukrainian APC moves towards front positions at Bakhmut
The intense battle depleted both sides’ artillery reserves, with thousands of shells fired daily along the eastern and southern fronts. Kiev’s European allies are working on a deal to buy more ammunition for the battle.
The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force, which is leading the Bakhmut attack, said Monday he needed the regular army to supply him with more ammunition, reinforcements and cover if he was to win the battle.
Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin’s appeal came amid signs of a deepening rift between him and Russia’s defense ministry, which he bitterly criticized for months and accused of deliberately starving his men of ammunition, an allegation it has rejected. .
“I am knocking on all doors and raising the alarm about ammunition and reinforcements, as well as the need to cover our flanks,” he said in a statement from his press service.
“If everyone is coordinated, without ambition, blunders and tantrums, and carries out this work, then we will block the armed forces of Ukraine. If not, everyone will be screwed.’
There was no immediate response from the Russian Defense Ministry.