Ukrainian military vows to hold Bakhmut as Russians close in

Intense Russian shelling targeted the city in the Donetsk region and nearby villages as Moscow deployed more resources to try to finish off Bakhmut’s resistance

A Ukrainian soldier takes cover in a trench under Russian shelling on the frontline close to Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on Sunday, March 5, 2023.LIBKOS (AP)

Ukrainian military leaders expressed determination Monday to hold onto Bakhmut as Russian forces encroached on the devastated eastern city they have sought to capture for six months at the cost of thousands of lives.

Less than a week ago, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the defenders might retreat from Bakhmut and fall back to nearby positions. But Zelensky’s office said Monday that he chaired a meeting in which the country’s top military brass “spoke in favor of continuing the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.”

Intense Russian shelling targeted the city in the Donetsk region and nearby villages as Moscow deployed more resources to try to finish off Bakhmut’s resistance, according to local officials.

“Civilians are fleeing the region to escape Russian shelling continuing round the clock,” Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

Russian forces that invaded Ukraine just over a year ago have been unable to deliver a knockout blow that would allow them to seize Bakhmut. Analysts say it does not have major strategic value and that its capture would be unlikely to serve as a turning point in the conflict.

The Russian push for Bakhmut reflects the Kremlin’s broader struggle to achieve battlefield momentum. Moscow’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022, soon stalled, and Ukraine launched a largely successful counteroffensive. Over the bitterly cold winter months, the fighting has largely been deadlocked.

The city’s importance has become symbolic. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, prevailing there would finally deliver some good news from the front. For Kyiv the display of grit and defiance reinforces a message that Ukraine is holding on after a year of brutal attacks, justifying continued support from its Western allies.

US Secretary of Defense 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, is “continuing to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops” into Bakhmut, while Ukraine is patiently “building combat power” elsewhere with Western military support ahead of a possible spring offensive.

Even so, some analysts question the wisdom of pressing the 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 drained the Russian war effort, but that Kyiv should now look ahead.

“The tenacious defense of Bakhmut achieved a great deal, expending Russian manpower and ammunition,” Kofman tweeted late Sunday. “But strategies can reach points of diminishing returns, and given Ukraine is trying to husband resources for an offensive, it could impede the success of a more important operation.”

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted that urban warfare favors the defender, but that Kyiv’s smartest option now may be to withdraw to positions that are easier to defend.

In recent days, Ukrainian units destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby hilltop town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to UK military intelligence officials and other Western analysts. Demolishing the bridges could slow the Russian offensive.

“Ukrainian forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut all at once and may pursue a gradual fighting withdrawal to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare,” the ISW said in an assessment published late Sunday.

The Bakhmut battle has also served to expose Russian military shortcomings and bitter divisions.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group military company that has spearheaded the Bakhmut offensive, has been at loggerheads with the Russian Defense Ministry and repeatedly accused it of failing to provide his forces with ammunition.

On Sunday, he again criticized top military brass for moving slowly to deliver the promised ammunition and questioned whether the delay was caused “by red tape or treason.”

The commander of the Ukrainian land forces, Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, noted after visiting Bakhmut that the fight has escalated with the deployment of additional Wagner forces. Ukrainian troops, which are now focused on defending the city’s north to prevent its encirclement, “have inflicted significant losses to the enemy, destroyed a large amount of equipment, forced the best Wagner assault units to be thrown into battle and reduced the enemy’s offensive potential.”

Putin’s stated ambition is to seize full control of the four provinces, including Donetsk, that Moscow illegally annexed last fall. Russian forces control about half of Donetsk province, and to take its remaining half, they must go through Bakhmut. The city is the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian troops took back Izium in Kharkiv province during a counteroffensive last September.

Bakhmut has taken on almost mythic importance to its defenders. It has become like Mariupol – the port city in the same province that Russia captured last year after an 82-day siege that eventually came down to a mammoth steel mill where determined Ukrainian fighters held out along with civilians.

Moscow looked to cement its rule in the areas it has occupied and annexed. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Mariupol and toured some of the city’s rebuilt infrastructure, the Defense Ministry reported Monday. Shoigu was shown a newly built hospital, a rescue center of the Emergency Ministry and residential buildings, the ministry said.

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