Ukrainian military leaders are determined to hold onto Bakhmut, Kyiv officials said Monday, even as Russian forces continued to encroach on the devastated eastern Ukrainian city that they have sought to capture for six months at the cost of thousands of lives.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said he chaired a meeting with military officials during which the country’s top brass advocated strengthening Ukrainian positions there.
Intense Russian shelling targeted the Donetsk region city and nearby villages as Moscow deployed more resources there in an apparent bid to finish off Bakhmut’s resistance, according to local officials.
“Civilians are fleeing the region to escape Russian shelling continuing round the clock as additional Russian troops and weapons are being deployed there,” Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Russian forces that invaded Ukraine just over a year ago have been bearing down on Bakhmut for months, putting Kyiv’s troops on the defensive but unable to deliver a knockout blow.
More broadly, Russia continues to experience difficulty generating battlefield momentum. Moscow’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, soon stalled and then was pushed back by a Ukraine counteroffensive. Over the bitterly cold winter months, the fighting has largely been deadlocked.
Its importance has become psychological — for Russian President Vladimir Putin, prevailing there will finally deliver some good news from the battlefield, while for Kyiv the display of grit and defiance reinforces a message that Ukraine was holding on after a year of brutal attacks to cement support among its Western allies.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin endorsed that view Monday, saying during a visit to Jordan that Bakhmut has “more of a symbolic value than … strategic and operational value.”
He added that Moscow is “continuing to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops” in Bakhmut, whereas Ukraine is patiently “building combat power” elsewhere with Western military support ahead of the launch of a possible spring offensive.
Even so, some analysts questioned the wisdom of the Ukrainian defenders holding out much longer, with others suggesting a tactical withdrawal may already be underway.
Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the CAN think tank in Arlington, Virginia, said that Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut has been effective because it has drained the Russian war effort, but that Kyiv should now look ahead.
“I think the tenacious defense of Bakhmut achieved a great deal, expending Russian manpower and ammunition,” Kofman tweeted late Sunday. “But strategies can reach points of diminishing returns, and given Ukraine is trying to husband resources for an offensive, it could impede the success of a more important operation.”
Ukrainian officials have previously raised the possibility of a tactical retreat.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted that urban warfare favors the defender but considered that the smartest option now for Kyiv may be to withdraw to positions that are easier to defend.
In recent days, Ukrainian units destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby hilltop town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to U.K. military intelligence officials and other Western analysts. Demolishing the bridges could be part of efforts to slow down the Russian offensive if Ukrainian forces start pulling back from the city.
“Ukrainian forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut all at once and may pursue a gradual fighting withdrawal to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare,” the ISW said in an assessment published late Sunday.
The Bakhmut battle has also served to expose Russian military shortcomings and bitter divisions.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group military company that spearheaded the Bakhmut offensive, has been at loggerheads with the Russian Defense Ministry and repeatedly accused it of failing to provide his forces with ammunition. On Sunday, he again criticized top military brass for moving slowly to deliver the promised ammunition, questioning whether the delay was caused “by red tape or treason.”
Putin’s stated ambition is to seize full control of the four provinces, including Donetsk, that Moscow illegally annexed last fall. Russia controls about half of Donetsk province, and to take the remaining half of that province its forces must go through Bakhmut.
The city is the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian troops took back Izium in Kharkiv province during a counteroffensive last September.
But taking at least six months to conquer Bakhmut, which had a prewar population of 80,000 and was once a popular vacation destination, speaks poorly of the Russian military’s offensive capabilities and may not bode well for the rest of its campaign.
“Russian forces currently do not have the manpower and equipment necessary to sustain offensive operations at scale for a renewed offensive toward (the nearby cities of) Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, let alone for a years-long campaign to capture all of Donetsk Oblast,” the ISW said.
Bakhmut has taken on almost mythic importance to its defenders. It has become like Mariupol — the port city in the same province that Russia captured after an 82-day siege that eventually came down to a mammoth steel mill where determined Ukrainian fighters held out along with civilians.
Moscow looked to cement its rule in the areas it has occupied and annexed. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Mariupol and toured some of the city’s rebuilt infrastructure, the Defense Ministry reported Monday.
Shoigu was shown a newly built hospital, a rescue center of the Emergency Ministry and residential buildings, the ministry said.