Ukrainian military leaders have expressed their determination to retain Bakhmut as Russian forces encroach on the devastated eastern city they have sought to capture for six months at the cost of thousands of lives.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said it discussed Operation Bakhmut on Monday with the chief of staff and the commander of the ground forces, who both spoke in favor of “reinforcing positions in Bakhmut” and continuation of the defensive operation.
Intense Russian shelling targeted the Donetsk region city and nearby villages as Moscow launched a three-way assault in an attempt to finish off Bakhmut’s resistance.
The nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka came under heavy shelling, damaging cars and houses and starting a fire. No casualties were reported immediately.
Police and volunteers evacuated people from Chasiv Yar and other frontline towns in an operation made difficult by the destruction of bridges and constant artillery fire that left barely a house standing.
Russia are trying to surround Bakhmut to secure what would be their first major win in over six months. Its capture would be the culmination of a winter offensive that resulted in the bloodiest fighting of the war.
After Russian gains in recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have reinforced their positions west of Bakhmut in apparent preparation for an eventual retreat. However, reports from commanders on Monday suggested they had not yet decided to withdraw.
The intense battle has exhausted the artillery reserves of both sides as thousands of shells are fired daily along the eastern and southern fronts. kyiv’s European allies are working on a deal to procure more ammunition for the fight.
Meanwhile, Washington said that even if the eastern city were to fall to Russia, it would not mean a change in the momentum of the war.
Speaking to reporters in the Middle East, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said he would not predict when or if Ukrainian troops might leave the city, but his downfall “won’t necessarily mean the Russians changed the course of this fight.”
“I think it’s more symbolic value than strategic and operational value,” Austin said.
Moscow says capturing the city would be a step towards its major goal of seizing the entire surrounding Donbass region. Kiev says Russia’s losses trying to seize a rubble-stricken city could determine the future course of the war by wiping out combat power ahead of potentially decisive battles later this year.
The commander of Ukrainian ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited Bakhmut on Sunday, according to the army. He said the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary army, had thrown additional forces into the fight, but Ukrainian soldiers were still fighting.
Volodymyr Nazarenko, a Ukrainian commander in Bakhmut, said there had been no order to retreat and that “the defense is holding”, albeit in grim conditions.
“The situation in and around Bakhmut is absolute hell, as it is on the entire eastern front,” Nazarenko said in a video posted on Telegram.
In the latest sign of a row between the Russian army and the Wagner group leading its assault on Bakhmut, Wagner’s boss demanded more ammunition and said his aide had been barred from the army’s operational headquarters.
Yevgeny Prigozhin said he wrote a letter to the commander of the Ukraine campaign on Sunday “about the urgent need to allocate ammunition”. On Monday morning, he said his representative at operations headquarters had his pass canceled and denied access.
There was no immediate comment from the Russian Defense Ministry. Since the beginning of this year, the Ukrainian campaign has been personally commanded by the Russian General-in-Chief, Chief of Staff Valery Gerasimov.
On Monday, Prigozhin warned in a Russian social media post that the situation in Bakmut “will turn out to be a ‘pie’: the filler is the parts of the Ukrainian Armed Forces surrounded by us (in the case, of course, if there is a complete encirclement of Bakhmut), and the shell is, in fact, the Wagner group.
Colonel General Syrskyi noted after visiting Bakhmut that the fighting had intensified with the deployment of additional forces from Wagner.
Ukrainian troops are concentrating on defending the north of the city to prevent its encirclement and “inflicted heavy losses on the enemy, destroyed a large amount of equipment, forced Wagner’s best assault units to be thrown into the combat and reduces the offensive potential of the enemy,” Syrski said.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, Mykyta Shandyba, told Ukrainian television “it was clear” that Russian forces faced an ammunition shortage that had limited their advances in Bakhmut.
However, he said, Russian attacks have intensified in recent days with groups of up to 30 trying to break through Ukrainian defense lines.
“They’ve failed so far,” he said.
Bakhmut’s importance has become symbolic. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, triumph there would finally bring good news from the front. For kyiv, the show of courage and defiance reinforces the message Ukraine holds after a year of brutal attacks, justifying the continued support of its Western allies.
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