Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy publicly committed his troops to holding out in Bakhmut after days in which they had seemed likely to withdraw, apparently prolonging the war’s bloodiest battle in a bid to break Moscow‘s assault force.
Moscow has sent thousands of troops in waves over recent weeks to try to capture the eastern Ukrainian city and secure its first battlefield victory in more than half a year. Ukrainian forces have dug trenches further west and in recent days had seemed to be preparing to pull out.
But Zelenskiy’s remarks in an overnight address suggested Kyiv had elected not only to stay and fight on but to reinforce the city, apparently convinced that Russia’s losses in trying to storm it would be greater than those of the defenders.
“The command unanimously supported” the decision not to withdraw, Zelenskiy said. “There were no other positions. I told the commander-in-chief to find the appropriate forces to help our guys in Bakhmut.”
Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago and claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of its territory, says taking Bakhmut would be a step towards seizing the surrounding industrial Donbas region, a major war aim.
“The liberation of Artemovsk continues,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks, using the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut, re-adopted by the invading Russians.
“The city is an important hub for defending Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. Taking it under control will allow further offensive actions to be conducted deep into Ukraine’s defensive lines.”
Western strategists say the ruined city has limited value, and Russia’s assault may aim for a symbolic victory after a winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of conscripted reservists and fighters from the Wagner private army.
The Ukrainian military command reported a record 1,600 Russians killed over the previous 24 hours. Tolls of enemy dead cannot be confirmed and the sides do not release regular data on their own casualties, but past Ukrainian reports of spikes in Russian losses have corresponded with failed Russian assaults. Moscow said Ukraine’s losses in February had risen 40% from January to 11,000.
Reuters journalists have not been inside Bakhmut for a week and could not independently verify the situation there.
Urban warfare typically favours defenders. Some Ukrainian officials have spoken in recent days of a ratio of as many as seven Russians killed at Bakhmut for every Ukrainian lost.
“The opportunity to damage the Wagner Group’s elite elements, along with other elite units if they are committed, in a defensive urban warfare setting where the attrition gradient strongly favours Ukraine is an attractive one,” wrote the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.
Still, not every Western expert agrees with the wisdom of Ukraine fighting on in Bakhmut.
“From artillery ammo shortages, increasingly contested lines of communication, and an attritional battle in unfavourable terrain – this fight doesn’t play to Ukraine’s advantages as a force,” wrote Michael Kofman, a U.S.-based expert on Russia’s military who visited Bakhmut last week.
On Russia’s side, the Bakhmut battle has exposed a rift between the regular military and Wagner, whose boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has released videos in recent days accusing officials of withholding ammunition from his men.
In his latest swipe at Defence Minister Shoigu, Prigozhin said on Tuesday he had “not seen him in Bakhmut”.
The Russian defence ministry denies withholding ammunition from Wagner but has not responded to Prigozhin’s latest accusations. The Kremlin has remained silent over the feud.
PRISONER VIDEO CAUSES OUTCRY
A video apparently showing Russian soldiers gunning down an unarmed Ukrainian war prisoner caused an outcry across Ukraine.
The man, in uniform with Ukrainian insignia, says “Glory to Ukraine” before shots are heard. A voice says “Die, bitch” in Russian as he slumps to the ground. Ukraine’s military identified him as Tymofiy Shadura, a soldier missing since Feb. 3 around Bakhmut.
“I want us all in unity to respond to his words: ‘Glory to the hero. Glory to the heroes. Glory to Ukraine.’ And we will find the murderers,” Zelenskiy said in his televised address.
Russia denies carrying out war crimes in Ukraine, which it invaded a year ago claiming to be responding to a security threat from its neighbour’s ties to the West.
The United Nations said Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was headed to Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy and discuss renewing an agreement safeguarding grain exports from Ukraine and Russia, both among the world’s biggest suppliers. The agreement, reached last year to prevent the war causing global famine, expires later this month.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed as well as soldiers on both sides. Russia has bombarded Ukrainian cities and set millions of civilians to flight in what Kyiv and the West call an unprovoked war of conquest.
While Russia has made gains in recent weeks around Bakhmut, its winter offensive has otherwise been a failure, yielding no significant gains in major assaults further north and south.
Kyiv, which recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, has spent the last three months on the defensive, trying to exhaust the attacking Russians before an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive later this year.
In Velyka Novosilka, a village along the Donbas front, remaining residents sheltered in darkness in a cellar while artillery could be heard rumbling outside.
“Since the war started, almost every building was razed to the ground. Many houses were destroyed, many houses were burnt. Many people left, but many still remained here because it is their land, their motherland,” said resident Iryna Babkina, 46. “I want peace and shelling to be over. I want to live under the peaceful sky,” she said. “I think things will get better very soon, we very much hope for that. It will be Ukraine.”