Russia claims to have Bahmut, but Ukrainian military leaders say battle is not over

KYIV, Ukraine — Although Russia says it has taken control of the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut after a brutal nine-month conflict that has left tens of thousands of fighters dead, Ukrainian military leaders say the battle is far from over.

Ukrainian officials admit they control only a small part of Bahmut.

However, according to Ukraine, the presence of their fighters played a key role in their strategy to exhaust the Russian army. And they say their current position in the areas surrounding Bakhmut allows them to strike back inside the 400-year-old city.

“Despite the fact that we currently control a small part of Bahmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said Colonel General. Oleksandr Syrskyi, Commander of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “This gives us the opportunity to enter the city if the situation changes. And that will definitely happen.”

The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation in Bahmut. The Russian Defense Ministry said Wagner mercenaries, backed by Russian troops, had taken the town, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Bahmut had not yet been fully captured.

In a video posted on Telegram, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of Wagner, claimed that the city came under full Russian control around noon on Saturday. Prigozhin held a Russian flag in front of a group of at least nine masked corpsmen carrying heavy weapons: “At 12:00 this afternoon, Bahmut was completely captured.”

Far more important to Ukraine were the high number of Russian casualties and the loss of morale among enemy troops in a small patch of the 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) front as Ukraine prepares for a major counteroffensive in 15 months. – old war.

“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut. They lost some of the heights around the city. The continuous advance of our troops in the suburbs greatly complicates the presence of the enemy,” said Hanna Maliar, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine. – Our troops have half surrounded the city, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy.

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About 55 kilometers (34 mi) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, Bahmut was an important industrial center surrounded by salt and gypsum mines and home to about 80,000 people in a country of more than 43 million before the war.

The city, named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, was known for its sparkling wine produced in underground caves. It was popular among tourists for its wide tree-lined boulevards, lush parks, and imposing downtown with imposing mansions from the late 19th century. Now all of them have turned into a smoldering wasteland.

In recent months, Russia and Ukraine have been fighting so fiercely in the city center of Bahmut that Ukrainian commanders have admitted that Moscow controls more than 90% of it. But even now, Ukrainian forces are making significant advances near strategic roads through the countryside, cutting off Russia’s northern and southern flanks by yards (yards) in an effort to encircle the Wagner fighters inside the city.

Ukrainian military leaders say their months of resistance have been worth it because it has limited Russia’s capabilities elsewhere and allowed Ukraine to advance.

“The main idea is to exhaust them and then attack,” Ukrainian Colonel Yevhen Mezhevikin, commander of the special group fighting in Bahmut, said on Thursday.

Ukrainian officials and outside observers say Russia has sent reinforcements to Bahmut to replace the lost northern and southern flanks and prevent further Ukrainian breakthroughs. Russian President Vladimir Putin desperately needs a victory in Bakhmut, where Russian forces have concentrated their efforts, analysts say, especially after his troops’ winter offensive failed to capture other cities on the front.

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According to some analysts, Ukraine’s tactical advantage in rural areas outside Bahmut may be more significant than meets the eye.

“It was almost as if the Ukrainians were just taking advantage of the fact that the Russian lines were actually weak,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews. “The Russian army has suffered such great losses and is so worn out around Bahmut that… it can no longer advance.”

Ukrainian forces carried out relentless artillery attacks on the outskirts of Bahmut and the city until a month ago. Then Ukrainian forces south of the city spotted a chance for a breakthrough after reconnaissance drones showed that the southern Russian flank had gone on the defensive, Col. Mezhevikin said.

After weeks of fierce fighting, Ukrainian units advanced for the first time around Bahmut since the occupation nine months ago.

A total of nearly 20 square kilometers of land was reclaimed, Maliar said in an interview last week. According to Szerhij Tserevatyi, spokesperson of Ukraine’s Eastern Military Command, hundreds of meters have been recovered almost every day since then.

“Before, we just held the lines and did not allow the Russians to push further into our territory. What happened now is our first advance (since the start of the battle),” Maliar said.

A victory in Bakhmut does not necessarily bring Russia closer to capturing the Donetsk region – Putin’s stated war goal. Rather, it opens the door to further grinding battles in the direction of Sloviansk or Kostyantinivka, 20 kilometers away, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the American think tank Institute for the Study of War.

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Satellite images released this week showed infrastructure, blocks of flats and iconic buildings reduced to rubble.

In the past week, days before Russia announced that it had taken control of the city, Ukrainian forces had preserved only a few buildings amid constant Russian bombardment. Outnumbered and unarmed, they described nightmarish days.

Russia’s artillery dominance was so overwhelming, accompanied by continuous waves of human mercenaries, that defensive positions could not be held for long.

“The importance of the mission to stay in Bakhmut is to distract a significant enemy force,” said Taras Deiak, commander of a special unit of a volunteer battalion. “We are paying a high price for this.”

The northern and southern flanks, which Ukraine has recaptured, are located near two highways that lead to the town of Chasiv Yar, 10 kilometers from Bakhmut, and are key logistics supply routes. One is called “life path”.

Ukrainian forces passing this way were often fired upon by Russians positioned along strategic heights nearby. Armored vehicles and vans heading towards the city were often destroyed to replenish Ukrainian troops.

The high plains under Ukrainian control give his forces more breathing room.

“This will help us design new logistics chains to bring in ammunition and evacuate injured or dead boys,” Deiak of Bakhmut said on Thursday, two days before Russia took control of the city. “Now it’s easier to transport supplies, change teams, and carry out evacuations.”


Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.