Ukraine Holds Off Russian Forces in Bakhmut As Fighting Intensifies
Russian forces are attacking Bakhmut from three directions in a persistent attempt to encircle Ukrainian troops there, the Ukrainian military said on Sunday, maintaining pressure on the battered city that has become the focal point of Moscow’s wide-ranging offensive in eastern Ukraine.
The battle for Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donbas region — Russia’s longest-running sustained assault since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — began last summer, and Ukrainian soldiers have held out there even as Russian forces have gradually captured surrounding territory, nearly cutting off the city. In recent weeks, Moscow has ramped up an offensive to seize the whole of Donbas, sending troops that it mobilized last fall into the fight.
In an indication of the severity of the fighting and its broad geographical reach, the Ukrainian military’s General Staff said Sunday that its forces had repelled 130 Russian attacks the previous day.
“The adversary continues its attempts to encircle the town of Bakhmut,” it said in a morning update, listing attacks on a string of small towns and settlements in the vicinity of the city.
The fighting on Saturday killed two civilians in Bakhmut, the head of Ukraine’s regional military administration in Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Sunday in a post on the Telegram social messaging app. Seven civilians were wounded in the region, he added.
Before the war, Bakhmut had a population of about 70,000, but the Ukrainian authorities say that only a few thousand civilians remain. The authorities have been working to evacuate those who have stayed, but the task has become harder as the roads out of the city have increasingly come under threat.
Moscow has been advancing on Bakhmut from territory it already holds to the east of the city, taking towns and villages that have more recently enabled it to attack the city from the north and south.
Russia has rushed large numbers of troops to the area around Bakhmut, including many newly mobilized, ill-trained recruits. Ukraine also has sent reinforcements to the battle, which military analysts say has taken on greater symbolic value than strategic importance.
Military experts say that Russia’s offensive is being fought at five or six points along a front line that stretches about 100 miles from the town of Kreminna in Luhansk to Vuhledar in Donetsk, where Moscow suffered heavy losses in a tank battle in recent weeks.
While Russian forces have not made significant territorial gains in their renewed offensive, they have been tightening the claw around Bakhmut. Last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine vowed that Ukraine would not give up on Bakhmut, calling it “our fortress.” But in recent days, Ukrainian officials have been preparing the public for the possibility of a retreat.
Mick Ryan, a military analyst and retired Australian Army major general who is a fellow at the Lowy Institute, a think tank based in Sydney, wrote on Sunday that Russian forces, despite taking a very large number of casualties, had “slowly but surely begun to take ground in and around Bakhmut.” He said in a post on Substack that “Russia is strangling (but not yet stopping) the Ukrainian capacity to defend the city.”
That sentiment was echoed by the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based research group. It said that Russian forces “will not likely be able to encircle the city soon,” but that by closing in on the roads that are the vital lifelines of supply for Ukrainian fighters, they could force Kyiv’s forces to abandon their defensive positions and withdraw.
If Russia does eventually capture Bakhmut, it would be the culmination of one the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, but questions would remain about Russia’s ability to sustain its offensive and gain further ground in eastern Ukraine.
“The reality is that if the Russians do capture Bakhmut, they are seizing rubble,” Mr. Ryan said. “It is a town with minimal strategic importance, with almost no remaining infrastructure to support an occupying force. That the Russians have invested so much in its capture speaks volumes about their poor strategy in this war.”
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