Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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 human wave attacks 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 Zelenskyy’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 were still far greater than those of the defenders.
“The command unanimously supported” the decision not to withdraw, Zelenskyy 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 be motivated by a need to give President Vladimir Putin a symbolic victory for a winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of conscripted reservists and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private army.
The Ukrainian military command on Tuesday reported a record 1,600 Russians killed over the previous 24 hours. Such figures of enemy dead cannot be confirmed and the sides do not release regular figures of their own casualties. But past Ukrainian reports of similar spikes in Russian losses have corresponded with major failed Russian assaults.
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 favors 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 unfavorable 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 the defence ministry of withholding ammunition from his men.
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.
Mark Hertling, a retired former commander of U.S. ground forces in Europe, said the quarrel among Russian commanders helps Kyiv.
“The opponent – in this case, Ukraine – rejoices, as a lack of unity of command creates enemy dysfunction and countless offensive opportunities,” he tweeted.
PRISONER VIDEO CAUSES OUTCRY
A video apparently showing Russian soldiers gunning down an unarmed Ukrainian prisoner of war caused an outcry across Ukraine. The man says “Glory to Ukraine” before multiple shots are heard. A voice is heard saying “Die, bitch” in Russian as the man slumps to the ground.
“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,” Zelenskyy 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.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed as well as soldiers on both sides. Russia has razed Ukrainian cities to the ground 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.
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Kyiv, which recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, has spent the last three months focusing on defence, trying to exhaust the attacking Russians before an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive later this year.
In Velyka Novosilka, a village along the Donbas front, remaining residents shelter in darkness in a cellar while artillery could be heard rumbling outside. Pet fish darted in an aquarium. A pot was boiling on a stove.
“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.”