The Ukrainian military and Russia’s mercenary Wagner forces have reported further Russian retreats around the city of Bakhmut, as Kyiv pressed on with its biggest advance in the city for months in advance of a long-awaited counteroffensive.
Ukraine said it had repelled a day of Russian attacks in and around the ruined eastern city on Thursday and made gains of up to 1km (almost 3,300 feet) in some places.
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The head of the Wagner Group, which is spearheading the Russian attack on Bakhmut, said his forces had also advanced up to 400 metres (more than 1,300 feet) in parts of the city.
“We’re pushing Bakhmut all the way to the end,” Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said in an audio recording on his Telegram channel.
Prigozhin has said Wagner fighters are on the cusp of pushing Ukrainian troops out of their last foothold in the built-up area on the city’s western outskirts. But he also accused Russia’s regular forces of abandoning ground north and south of the city, raising the risk of Russian troops inside being encircled.
“Unfortunately, units of the Russian defence ministry have withdrawn up to 570 metres (1,880 feet) to the north of Bakhmut, exposing our flanks,” Prigozhin said in his latest voice message on Thursday.
“I am appealing to the top leadership of the Ministry of Defence – publicly – because my letters are not being read,” Prigozhin said, addressing Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
“Please do not give up the flanks,” he said.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar, reporting on the advances in Bakhmut, said Ukrainian forces were meeting their “military objectives”.
“As of now, we control the southwestern part of Bakhmut,” she said.
Russia attacked Bakhmut all day on Thursday having “significantly strengthened” its forces in the city by bringing in most of its reserves, but all “attacks were repelled”, she said.
The Russian defence ministry has acknowledged some withdrawals from positions near Bakhmut over the past week but denies Prigozhin’s assertions that flanks are crumbling, or that it has withheld ammunition from Wagner.
Ukrainian forces have seized the “tactical initiative and made tactically significant gains around Bakhmut in counter-attack operations” on Thursday, the Institute for the Study of War said in its latest briefing on the conflict.
“The limited nature of Wagner’s offensive operations in Bakhmut compared to the localized Ukrainian counterattacks underscores the loss of Russian initiative in the area,” the Washington, DC-based think tank said.
3/ #Prigozhin’s efforts to blame the Russian military for failures around #Bakhmut are causing some ultranationalists to accuse him of using the Battle for Bakhmut to satisfy his personal ambitions. https://t.co/x4d8VUsgOm
— ISW (@TheStudyofWar) May 19, 2023
Declaring victory in the blackened ruins of Bakhmut, described by both sides as a “meat grinder”, would be Moscow’s only prize for its huge winter offensive that failed elsewhere along the front.
Kyiv says its tactic in Bakhmut is to draw Russian forces into the city’s urban warfare, so as to weaken Russia’s front-line defences elsewhere before Kyiv’s planned counterassault.
The area around the city, once home to 70,000 people in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, has been the focus of fighting for months.
Oleksander Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said in social media message this week that Wagner forces had “climbed into Bakhmut like rats into a mousetrap”.
“The enemy has more resources, but we are destroying his plans,” he said.
On Thursday night, Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy praised his troops and the country’s air defences amid days of complex missile and drone attacks on Kyiv and other cities, which have been largely repelled resulting in the downing of the incoming Russian missiles.
“First of all, the defence brigades did a good job, they fulfilled the main strategic tasks, but now is not the time to give details,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address.
“Secondly, the offensive brigades are doing a good job, we are preparing,” he said, adding that no details could be given.
“Thirdly, on the protection of civilians, the Air Force is doing a great job … Our priorities for this week, next week, and for the near future are additional air defence systems, additional missiles, training and aircraft, and long-range weapons. And this will be fulfilled.”
Secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council Oleksiy Danilov said Russia’s repeated missile attacks on Kyiv – there have been nine so far this month – was a sign of Moscow’s desperation.
Kyiv remains putin’s maniacal and unattainable goal. Symbolic places of Kyiv are the target of russian missile attacks. The kremlin needs those senseless and super-expensive attacks for russia on the capital to raise the degree of patriotic hysteria inside the country. In russia,…
— Oleksiy Danilov (@OleksiyDanilov) May 18, 2023
Moscow was attacking the “symbolic places” of Kyiv as it needed to “raise the degree of patriotic hysteria” within Russia, Danilov wrote in a tweet.
In Russia a “process of despair and disappointment with the authorities is developing against the background of the unsuccessful offensive and failures at the front”, he added.