In their bid to seize Bakhmut, Russian forces, led by the Wagner mercenary group, have waged a months-long onslaught, which has resulted in thousands of dead and wounded on each side, even though military experts say there is little long-term strategic value in taking the city. If the Ukrainians retreat, they will fallback just a few kilometers to long-planned defensive positions.
The city, which Russians call by its Soviet-Russian name, Artyomovsk, is now almost completely destroyed, and most of its citizens, from a prewar population of 70,000, have fled.
Nonetheless, the fight for the city has taken on enormous symbolic value in Kyiv and Moscow, with the Wagner chief, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, seeking to claim a victory for the Kremlin after Russia’s regular military suffered a string of defeats, first in its attempt to capture Kyiv, and in Ukrainian counteroffensives in the northeast Kharkiv and southern Kherson regions.
Prigozhin has sent wave after wave of fighters, many of them convicted criminals recruited directly to the battlefield from prison, into Bakhmut, taking enormous casualties to make relatively tiny territorial gains.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in turn, has elevated the importance of Bakhmut, calling it “the fortress of our morale,” and celebrating the troops defending it. Among Ukrainians, “Bakhmut stands” has become a rallying cry.
For Russian President Vladimir Putin, capturing Bakhmut would deliver a needed victory and illustrate progress toward imposing Kremlin control of four eastern regions that the Russian leader has declared illegally as annexed.
Despite Ukraine’s successful counteroffensive last fall, Russian forces controls roughly one-fifth of Ukrainian territory, and Putin has shown no willingness to back away from his military aims.
The Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, has recently described the effort to seize the four regions — Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson — as a matter of upholding the Russian constitution, which was amended to declare the Ukrainian territory as belonging to Russia.
On Friday, Russian occupation officials formally declared Melitopol to be the new regional capital of Zaporizhzhia — a sign both of Russia’s stubborn annexation claims, but also its failure to capture the actual regional capital: Zaporizhzhia city, which lies just east of Dnieper River.
According to Ukrainian soldiers posted in Bakhmut, Russian forces have regularly pummeled the city in recent days with what they described as random artillery, mortar and rocket strikes. Ukrainian soldiers are operating mostly from trenches and have few remaining routes toward safer ground.
Prigozhin in recent days has claimed that the city is “practically surrounded” and that his fighters control all the main roads leading out of the city.
In a video that circulated over the weekend, Prigozhin complained of an ammunition shortage and warned that if his fighters were forced to retreat from Bakhmut, “the entire front will collapse,” according to media outlet Ukrainska Pravda. The Washington Post could not immediately verify when or where the video was recorded.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington think tank that conducts daily analyses of combat developments, on Saturday assessed that Russian forces “have not yet forced Ukrainian forces to withdraw and will likely not be able to encircle the city soon.”
ISW said that Russian fighters appear to be positioned to conduct a “turning movement” aimed at forcing Ukrainian troops to pull back from certain defensive positions. Ukrainian forces have destroyed several bridges in the area, ISW has said.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said over the weekend that Ukraine’s position in Bakhmut was “under increasingly severe pressure” and cited additional Russian advances on the city’s northern edges.
The Russians have been pressuring the city from the north, east and south. Ukraine’s fallback positions generally lie to the west.
Ukrainian military leaders have already indicated that they would not attempt to hold the city at any cost, potentially choosing to reserve manpower for a spring offensive expected to begin in coming weeks.
Kamila Hrabchuk contributed to this report.
One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine
Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.
A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.
*This story has not been edited by The Infallible staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.