Russian forces were continuing to tighten the noose around Bakhmut, the hotly contested city in eastern Ukraine that has become an unlikely focus of the year-old war.
While strategists say the city’s strategic value is minor, both Kyiv and Moscow have trained massive resources and manpower on the battle for the city, with Ukrainian defenders still in possession for now of the shattered city core despite intense fighting and heavy casualties on both sides.
Ukrainian military officials said the Bakhmut sector of the frontline has become the “epicenter of hostilities” in their attempts to throw back Russian invaders, although there has been talk in recent days of a strategic pullback as Russian forces threaten to encircle the city.
On Thursday, a Pentagon spokesman acknowledged that Russian troops and private Russian mercenary forces commanded by the Wagner Group continue to press their attacks on Bakhmut, but declined to comment on the state of the siege. Russian President Vladimir Putin is said to be anxious for a battlefield success to tout as he looks to shore up support at home for his military’s troubled campaign.
“Ukrainian forces continue to hold the line there. It remains a very fluid situation, so we continue to monitor” it, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder.
Separately, Russian officials charged Thursday that Ukrainian operatives crossed into western Russia and attacked local villages in the Bryansk region, the Associated Press reported. There was no immediate comment from Ukrainian officials, but if confirmed, it would be another indication following drone attacks earlier this week that Kyiv could be taking the fight into Russian territory, exposing Russian defensive weaknesses and sowing unease among Russian civilians.
A spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Group of Armed Forces said Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut are steadily wearing down the Russian attackers, even as the Russian lines make steady but minimal gains near the city’s outskirts.
“They exhaust, bleed [and] weaken the enemy, so that later when our reserves arrive [and] when they are ready, including with new equipment, it would be much easier for them to throw the enemy out of our land,” military spokesman Serihy Cherevaty said, according to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency.
Some military analysts say Ukraine and its advocates in Washington are painting a too-rosy picture of the situation on the ground in Bakhmut. Retired Army Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, said Ukraine has already lost a “catastrophic” number of troops defending Bakhmut even as it pours in more and more reinforcements.
He said Kyiv should have withdrawn its troops from the city a month ago and moved back to fortified positions they had already set up. Russia is now pushing in on at least three sides of Bakhmut.
“The political leadership in Kyiv decided that holding Bakhmut and preventing the Russians from capturing it was more important than anything else,” Col. Davis said. “But I still think they’re not going to be able to hold it. Once the ring is closed, it’s purely a matter of time.”
The warmer-than-usual winter may turn out to be one of Ukraine’s most important allies, however. The rising temperatures are creating unpassable muddy conditions known as “bezdorizhzhia” that severely limit cross-country movements, which typically provide some advantage to defending forces, British military intelligence officials said.
“This will add further friction to the ground operations and hamper the off-road movements of heavier armored vehicles, especially over churned-up ground in the Bakhmut sector,” British officials said Thursday in an intelligence assessment.
There were signs that Ukrainian officials are acknowledging that the propaganda value of holding Bakhmut may not be worth the blood and treasure being devoted to the fight.
“Our military is obviously going to weigh all of the options,” Alexander Rodnyansky, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskky, told reporters in Kyiv earlier this week. “So far, they’ve held the city, but if need be, they will strategically pull back. We’re not going to sacrifice all of our people just for nothing.”
— This article was based in part on wire service reports.