President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy publicly committed his troops to hold out at Bakhmut after days when they had seemed likely to withdraw, apparently prolonging the bloodiest battle of the war in an attempt to break Moscow’s offensive power.
Moscow has sent thousands of soldiers in human wave attacks in recent weeks to try to capture the eastern Ukrainian city and secure its first victory on the battlefield in more than six months. Ukrainian forces have dug trenches further west and in recent days had appeared to be preparing to withdraw.
But Zelenskyy’s comments in an overnight speech suggested that Kiev had chosen not only to stay and fight on but to reinforce the city, apparently convinced that Russia’s the losses in attempting 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 suitable forces to help our guys in Bakhmut.”
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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 toward capturing the surrounding industrial Donbas region, a major war objective.
“The liberation of Artemovsk continues,” Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks, using the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut, which was retaken by the invading Russians.
“The city is an important hub for defending Ukrainian troops in Donbas. Taking it under control will allow further offensive actions to be carried out deep into Ukraine’s defense lines.”
Western strategists say the destroyed 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 private Wagner army.
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The Ukrainian military command reported on Tuesday that 1,600 Russians had been killed in the past 24 hours. Such numbers of enemy dead cannot be confirmed and the sides do not release regular numbers of their own casualties. But previous Ukrainian reports of similar spikes in Russian casualties have corresponded to major failed Russian assaults.
Reuters journalists have not been inside Bakhmut for a week and could not independently verify the situation there.
Urban warfare usually favors defenders. Some Ukrainian officials in recent days have spoken of a ratio of as many as seven Russians killed in Bakhmut for every Ukrainian lost.
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“The potential to damage Wagner Group’s elite elements, along with other elite units if engaged, in a defensive urban warfare environment where the attrition gradient strongly favors Ukraine is attractive,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote.
Still, not all Western experts agree that Ukraine is fighting on in Bakhmut.
“From artillery ammunition shortages, increasingly contested lines of communication and a battle of attrition in unfavorable terrain – this fight does not play to Ukraine’s strengths as a force,” wrote Michael Kofman, a US-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 chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has released videos in recent days accusing the Defense Ministry of withholding ammunition from his men.
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The Russian Defense Ministry denies that Wagner has withheld ammunition but has not responded to Prigozhin’s latest accusations. The Kremlin has been silent on the feud.
Mark Hertling, a retired former commander of US ground forces in Europe, said the row between Russian commanders is helping Kiev.
“The adversary – in this case Ukraine – rejoices, as the lack of uniformity creates enemy dysfunction and countless offensive opportunities,” he tweeted.
CAPTURE VIDEO CAUSES FRAME
A video apparently showing Russian soldiers shooting down an unarmed Ukrainian prisoner of war caused an outcry across Ukraine. The man says “Glory to Ukraine” before several shots are fired. A voice is heard saying “Die, honey” in Russian as the man falls to the ground.
“I want us all to respond in unison to his words: ‘Glory to the hero. Glory to the heroes. Glory to Ukraine.’ And we will find the killers,” Zelenskyy said in his televised address.
Russia denies committing war crimes in Ukraine, which it invaded a year ago and says it is responding to a security threat from its neighbors’ ties to the West.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed as well as soldiers on both sides. Russia has leveled Ukrainian cities and displaced millions of civilians in what Kiev and the West call an unprovoked war of conquest.
While Russia has made progress in recent weeks around Bakhmut, its winter offensive has otherwise been a failure, yielding some significant gains in major attacks further north and south.
Kiev, which recaptured parts of the territory in the second half of 2022, has spent the past three months focusing on defense and trying to wear down the attacking Russians ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive later this year.
In Velyka Novosilka, a village along the Donbas front, the remaining residents took cover in the dark in a basement while artillery could be heard rumbling outside. Pet fish ran in an aquarium. A pot was boiling on a stove.
“Since the war started, almost all the buildings have been razed to the ground. Many houses were destroyed, many houses were burned. Many people left, but many still stayed here because it is their country, their homeland, said resident Iryna Babkina, 46.
“I want peace and shelling to end. I want to live under the peaceful sky,” she said. “I think things will get better soon, we really hope so. It will be Ukraine.”