The Ukrainian military promises to hold Bakhmut if the Russians approach

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian military leaders on Monday expressed their determination to hold Bakhmut when Russian troops invaded the devastated eastern city, which they had been trying to capture for six months at the cost of thousands of lives.

Less than a week ago, the adviser to the President of Ukraine, Uladzimir Zelenskyi, told the defender can retreat from Bakhmut and retreat to nearby positions.

But on Monday, Zelenskiy’s office said he chaired a meeting at which the top military leadership “spoke in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.”

Zelensky’s senior adviser Mikhail Podolyak told the Associated Press that the decision to retreat was not made because of “the consensus among the military on the need to continue defending the city” and the destruction of enemy forces “while building new defense lines.”

By strengthening the defense, he said, Ukraine exhausted the main combat-capable groups of Russia and prepared tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers for a possible counteroffensive.

Intense Russian shelling targeted the city in Donetsk Oblast and nearby villages as Moscow led a three-pronged assault in an attempt to end Bakhmut’s resistance.

The nearby towns of Chasau Yar and Konstantinovka came under heavy shelling, as a result of which cars and houses were damaged, and a fire broke out. No casualties were immediately reported.

Police and volunteers evacuated people from Chasava Yar and other frontline towns in an operation complicated by the loss of bridges and constant artillery fire that left almost no houses standing.

Russian troops were unable to deliver a knock-out blow that would allow them to capture Bakhmut. Analysts say it has little strategic value and that its capture is unlikely to be a turning point in the conflict.

Russia’s push for Bakhmut reflects the Kremlin’s broader struggle to gain momentum on the battlefield. Moscow a full scale invasion On February 24, 2022, it soon stopped, and Ukraine launched a largely successful counteroffensive. During the bitterly cold winter months, the fighting mostly came to a standstill.

The significance of the city acquired a mostly symbolic character. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a victory there would finally bring good news from the front. For Kiev, the show of toughness and defiance reinforces the message that Ukraine is holding on after a year of brutal attacks, justifying continued support from its Western allies.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin backed that view on Monday, saying during a visit to Jordan that the Bakhmut had “more symbolic value than … strategic and operational value.”

Moscow, he added, continues to “deploy many ill-trained and ill-equipped troops” in Bakhmut, while Ukraine patiently builds up “combat power” elsewhere with Western military support ahead of a possible spring offensive.

Despite this, some analysts doubt the expediency of ordering the Ukrainian defenders to hold out much longer. Others suggest that a tactical retreat may already be underway.

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

“Tough defense of Bakhmut accomplished much, costing 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 Washington-based think tank Institute for the Study of War said that the smartest option for Kiev now may be to withdraw to positions that are easier to defend.

“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.

The Battle of Bakhmut revealed the shortcomings of the Russian army and fierce disagreements.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the military company Wagner Group, which led the offensive on Bakhmut, clashed with the Russian Ministry of Defense and repeatedly accused it of not supplying his army with ammunition.

On Sunday, he again criticized the top military leadership for being slow to deliver promised ammunition and questioned whether the delay was caused by “red tape or betrayal”.

On Monday, Prigozhin warned on Russian social networks that the situation in Bakhmut “will turn out to be a ‘pie’: the filling is the units of the Armed Forces of Ukraine surrounded by us (if, of course, there is a complete encirclement of Bakhmut), and the shell is, in fact, Wagner’s group.”

Bakhmut acquired an almost mythical significance. It has become similar to Mariupol, a port city in the same province that Russia captured last year after an 82-day blockade that ended with a giant steel plant where determined Ukrainian fighters held together with civilians.

Moscow sought to consolidate its power in Mariupol. Minister of Defense of Russia Siarhei Shaigu inspected some objects of the reconstructed infrastructure of the city – a recently built hospital, a rescue center and residential buildings, the Ministry of Defense reported.

Other events on Monday:

– Russian troops struck the central and eastern regions of Ukraine with the help of Iranian-made Shahed drones, – said the press secretary of the Air Force of Ukraine Yuriy Ignat. Of the 15 drones launched by Russia, 13 were shot down, Ignat said. It is not yet clear if the attack caused any damage.

— Russian defenders shot down three rockets over the Belgorod region of Russia on the border with Ukraine, its governor Vyacheslav Gladkov reported on Telegram. According to the official, debris injured one person, damaged power lines and facades of residential buildings. Hladkov did not specify whether the missiles were launched from Ukraine.

— The Prosecutor General of Ukraine announced the start of a criminal investigation into the shooting of an unarmed Ukrainian prisoner of war by Russian soldiers. A video circulating on social media shows a Ukrainian soldier in uniform standing and smoking. The soldier says “Glory to Ukraine!” then a volley of arrows hits him and he falls into a shallow hole dug in the ground. The AP was unable to verify the authenticity of the video.

— The Federal Security Service of Russia (FSB) reported on the prevention of an attempt to kill businessman-nationalist Konstantin Malafeev, which was allegedly prepared by Ukrainian special services and the Russian Volunteer Corps, which claims to be part of the armed forces of Ukraine. According to the FSB, the organizer of the plan to plant a bomb under Malafeev’s car was the leader of the Russian volunteer corps, Dzianis Kapustin.

Malofeev is a media baron and owner of the ultra-conservative Tsargrad television channel, which has supported Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine and declared Moscow’s invasion a “holy war.” He has come under US sanctions, and last year was accused of trying to evade sanctions.

Last week, the Russian volunteer corps claimed responsibility for an attack on Russian villages on the border with Ukraine. The FSB said on Monday that Kapustin organized and led the raid that killed two civilians and wounded two others. The FSB’s allegations cannot be independently verified. Ukrainian officials do not comment.

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