As grip on Bakhmut slips, Ukrainian forces push to encircle town
“I’m in the trenches. We have reinforced ourselves in positions formerly occupied by Russia, Yuriy, a soldier of the Ukrainian army’s fifth separate assault brigade, wrote in an SMS from a position south of Bakhmut, near the village of Klishchiivka . He spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Around us there are a lot of dead Russians,” he said.
Ukraine still holds fragments of the city, including the area around what has become a landmark of Ukraine’s last redoubt: a destroyed sculpture of a Soviet MiG fighter jet, according to several military personnel involved. in defending the position, which Russian forces continue to contest.
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Oleksandr Syrsky, the military commander in eastern Ukraine who paid a surprise visit to the frontlines on Sunday, acknowledged that Ukraine controlled only a “small part” of Bakhmut, but said the The new objective was to encircle the city in a “tactical encirclement”, echoing a statement posted on Telegram by Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar.
News of this strategy to prolong the fight regardless of the technical control of the city emerged when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky painted a grim picture of the state of the battle in response to questions posed during a visit to Hiroshima, Japan, for a Group of Seven Summit Meeting. His remarks raised questions about what a Ukrainian victory would look like, given the destruction of the city and the costs its defenders have already paid.
“You have to understand, there is nothing,” Zelesnky said on Sunday – nothing of Bakhmut as it once was to control.
The city, northeast of the Donetsk region, was home to some 70,000 people before Russia invaded Ukraine last year. It has since been decimated, battered by some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict, as Russian troops and mercenary forces from the Wagner Group, largely made up of liberated Russian prisoners, gained ground block by block.
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On Saturday, Wagner founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin claimed his forces had finally captured the entire city and the Kremlin released a statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin that praised the city’s liberation, referring to it by the Soviet-Russian name, Artyomovsk. Ukraine has denied the allegations.
Full capture would be a rare victory for Moscow, which has struggled to score clean victories since the early days of the war.
But the Russian side has been torn by internal differences over Bakhmut, with Prighozin unleashing a wave of public criticism of his Russian military counterparts over their handling of the assault. Ukrainian forces have been able to exploit these differences to repel an enemy that greatly outnumbers them.
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Stanislav Bunyatov, 22, a soldier with the 24th Separate Assault Battalion who was wounded Wednesday in fighting near the villages of Klishchiivka and Ivanivske, said his unit was able to attack during a period when Wagnerian mercenaries were being replaced by Russian soldiers.
“They weren’t ready for us,” said Bunyatov, who is in the town of Dnipro recovering from an injury caused by grenade shrapnel.
Ukrainian tales of success outside of Bakhmut contrast with tales of setbacks in the city. On the roads of Chasiv Yar, a town west of Bakhmut which serves as a base for Ukrainian forces, some soldiers offered pessimistic views of the battle for the town.
“Bakhmut is finished,” a 47-year-old soldier from the 24th Brigade said on Sunday, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share his candid assessment. He said he had been in town the day before.
Ukrainian advances were reported in nearby areas, with commanders announcing on May 9 – VE Day – that they had taken more than a square mile of territory south of the city. Officials described this as a strategic decision.
Such advances make it “very difficult for the enemy to stay in Bakhmut,” Maliar wrote on Telegram on Sunday, referring to the capture of high ground outside the city.
The fight for Bakhmut has baffled some analysts, who have described it as strategically unrelated to the wider war. Ukraine is now preparing for a long-awaited spring counter-offensive where it hopes to penetrate Russian defenses on at least part of its 200-mile front line.
If Russian forces are stuck in Bakhmut, some say, it could hurt their readiness elsewhere.
President Biden said in Hiroshima on Sunday that Russia suffered more than 100,000 casualties in Bakhmut, a startling figure if accurate.
Russia’s difficulty in holding the city may be compounded by Prighozin’s assertion that he intends to withdraw Wagnerian fighters from the city in favor of new business opportunities in Sudan.
Ukraine, pessimism aside, seems willing to continue the fight. Bunyatov, the soldier recovering from a grenade wound, said he hoped to return to the front lines, preferably to Bakhmut.
“My brothers in arms are over there,” he said.
A year of Russian war in Ukraine
Portraits from Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion a year ago – in ways both big and small. They learned to survive and help each other in dire circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and crumbling markets. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.
Battle of Attrition: Over the past year, the war has evolved from a multi-pronged invasion that included kyiv in the north to an attrition conflict largely concentrated over a swath of territory to the east and south. Follow the 600 mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and see where the fighting has been concentrated.
One year of separate life: The invasion of Russia, coupled with Ukrainian martial law preventing men of military age from leaving the country, has forced millions of Ukrainian families to make agonizing decisions about how to balance safety, duty and love, once intertwined lives have become unrecognizable. This is what a train station full of farewells looked like last year.
Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but closer examination suggests the world is far from united on the issues raised by the war in Ukraine. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions have not stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.