Russia is intensifying its efforts to capture the elusive prize of the city of Ukraine

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Bakhmut’s fate appeared to hang in the balance Monday as Russian troops continued to advance on the devastated eastern Ukrainian city, but his defenders still denied the Kremlin the reward he has sought for six months and costing thousands lives.

According to local authorities, the city of Donetsk Oblast and nearby villages were shelled by Russia as Moscow deployed additional resources there in an apparent attempt to quell resistance to Bakhmut.

“Civilians are leaving the region to avoid 24-hour shelling from Russia, as additional Russian troops and weapons are stationed there,” Donetsk Governor Paulo Kirilenko said.

Russian forces, which invaded Ukraine just over a year ago, have been pressing Bakhmut for months, putting Kiev’s troops on the defensive but unable to deliver a knockout blow.

More broadly, Russia continues to struggle to build momentum on the battlefield. Moscow’s full-scale invasion on February 24, 2022 soon stalled and was later pushed back by a Ukrainian counteroffensive. During the bitterly cold winter months, the fighting mostly came to a standstill.

Bakhmut is not of great strategic importance, and according to analysts, its possible fall is unlikely to be a turning point in the conflict.

Its importance has become psychological: for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a victory will finally bring good news from the battlefield, while for Kiev, the show of toughness and defiance reinforces the message that Ukraine is holding on after a year of brutal attacks on support among its Western allies.

Despite this, some analysts have questioned the wisdom of the Ukrainian defenders holding out much longer, while others have suggested that a tactical retreat may already be underway.

Michael Koffman, director of Russia studies at the CAN think tank in Arlington, Virginia, said Bakhmut’s defense of Ukraine was effective because it sapped Russia’s military effort, but now Kiev must look ahead.

“I think the sustained defense of Bakhmut accomplished a lot at the cost of Russian manpower and ammunition,” Kofman tweeted late Sunday. “But strategies can reach points of diminishing returns, and given that Ukraine is trying to get resources for an offensive, that could hinder the success of a more important operation.”

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted that urban warfare favors the defenders, but found that the smartest option for Kiev now may be to withdraw to positions that are easier to defend.

In recent days, Ukrainian units have destroyed two key bridges in the immediate vicinity of Bakhmut, including one connecting it to the neighboring hilltop town of Chasau Yar along the last Ukrainian resupply route, British military intelligence officials and other Western analysts said. Demolition of the bridges could be part of an effort to slow the Russian offensive as Ukrainian forces begin to retreat from the city.

“Ukrainian forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut immediately and may continue a gradual withdrawal with fighting to wear down Russian forces with a prolonged urban war,” said the ISW assessment published late Sunday.

Putin’s stated ambition is to seize full control of four provinces, including Donetsk, which Moscow illegally annexed last fall. Russia controls about half of the Donetsk region, and to take the other half of this region, its forces must pass through Bakhmut.

The town is the only approach to larger towns controlled by Ukraine after Ukrainian forces retook Izyum in Kharkiv Oblast during a counter-offensive last September.

But the fact that it will take at least six months to conquer Bakhmut, which had a population of 80,000 before the war and was once a popular vacation spot, does not bode well for the Russian military’s offensive capabilities and may not bode well for the rest of the campaign.

“Russian forces currently lack the manpower and equipment needed to sustain large-scale offensive operations to resume the offensive on (the nearby cities of) Kramatorsk and Slavyansk, let alone a multi-year campaign to capture the entire Donetsk region,” it said. ISW said.

Bakhmut acquired an almost mythical significance for its defenders. It became like Mariupol, a port city in the same province that Russia captured after an 82-day blockade that eventually reached a giant steel plant, where determined Ukrainian fighters held together with civilians.

Moscow sought to consolidate its dominance in the areas it occupied and annexed. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Mariupol and inspected some of the city’s restored infrastructure, the Ministry of Defense reported on Monday.

Shaiga was shown the newly built hospital, the emergency and rescue center of the Ministry of Emergency Situations and residential buildings, the department informed. Meanwhile, at night, Russian troops attacked the central and eastern regions of Ukraine with the help of Iranian-made Shahed drones, Ukrainian Air Force spokesman Yuriy Ignat told Ukrainian media on Monday. Of the 15 drones launched by Russia, 13 were shot down, Ignat said. It is not yet clear if the attack caused any damage.

Also, the Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) said on Monday that it had prevented an attempt to kill businessman-nationalist Konstantin Malafeev. It claimed it was a conspiracy between Ukrainian security services and the Russian Volunteer Corps, a group that claims to be part of Ukraine’s armed forces.

According to the FSB, the orderer of the alleged attempt was the commander of the Russian volunteer corps, Dzianis Kapustin, and it was planned to install an explosive device under Malafeev’s car.

No details about exactly how and at what stage the FSB intervened are not reported. The video footage released by the service shows a man interfering with a car allegedly owned by Malafeev, and then a robot removing an object from under the car in the parking lot.

Malofeev is a media baron and owner of the ultra-conservative TV channel Tsargrad, who supported Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine and declared Moscow’s invasion a “holy war.” He fell under US sanctions

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