Ukraine leaders vow to bolster Bakhmut defence as battle rages

Kyiv expresses determination to hold onto eastern city as Russian forces try to take all of Donbas region.

Ukrainian military leaders have expressed determination 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.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said he discussed the Bakhmut operation on Monday with the chief of the general staff and commander of ground forces, who both spoke in favour of “further strengthening positions in Bakhmut” and continuing the defensive operation.

Intense Russian shelling targeted the city in the Donetsk region and nearby villages as Moscow pressed a three-sided assault to try to finish off Bakhmut’s resistance.

The nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka came under heavy shelling, damaging cars and homes and sparking a fire. No casualties were immediately reported.

Police and volunteers evacuated people from Chasiv Yar and other front-line towns in an operation made difficult by the destruction of bridges and constant artillery fire that has left barely a house standing.

Russia is trying to surround Bakhmut to secure what would be its first major gain in more than half a year. Its capture would be the culmination of a winter offensive that has brought the bloodiest fighting of the war.

After Russian gains in recent weeks, Ukrainian troops have been reinforcing positions west of Bakhmut in apparent preparation for a possible retreat. However, the reports from commanders on Monday suggested they had not yet decided to pull out.

The intense battle has depleted both sides’ artillery reserves 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 has said that even if the eastern city should fall to Russia, it would not signify a shift in the war’s momentum.

Speaking to reporters in the Middle East, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he would not predict when or if Ukrainian troops might leave the city but its fall “won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight”.

“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin said.

Moscow says capturing the city would be a step towards its major objective of seizing all of the surrounding Donbas region. Kyiv says Russia’s losses in trying to seize a city reduced to rubble could determine the future course of the war by destroying combat power ahead of potentially decisive battles later this year.

Ukraine’s ground forces commander, Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited Bakhmut on Sunday, according to the military. He said the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary army, had thrown additional forces into the fight but Ukraine’s soldiers were battling on.

Volodymyr Nazarenko, a Ukrainian commander in Bakhmut, said there had been no order to retreat and “the defence is holding”, albeit in grim conditions.

“The situation in Bakhmut and around it is utter hell, as it is on the entire eastern front,” Nazarenko said in a video posted on Telegram.

Wagner accusations

In the latest sign of a feud between Russia’s military and the Wagner Group leading its Bakhmut assault, Wagner’s boss demanded more ammunition and said his aide had been barred from the military’s operational headquarters.

Yevgeny Prigozhin said he had written a letter on Sunday to the commander of the Ukraine campaign “about the urgent need to allocate ammunition“. On Monday morning, he said his representative at operational headquarters had his pass cancelled and had been denied access.

There was no immediate comment from the Russian Ministry of Defence. Since the start of this year, the Ukraine campaign has been commanded personally by Russia’s top general, Chief of the General 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 filling is the parts of the Armed Forces of Ukraine 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 fight has escalated with the deployment of additional Wagner forces.

Ukrainian troops are focused on defending the city’s north to prevent its encirclement and “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”, Syrski said.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s 10th Mountain Assault Brigade, Mykyta Shandyba, told Ukrainian television “it was clear” that Russian forces faced a shortage of ammunition that had limited their advances in Bakhmut.

However, he said, Russia’s attacks had intensified in recent days with groups of 30 people trying to break through Ukrainian defence lines.

“They failed so far,” he said.

Bakhmut’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.

Source: News Agencies