Ukraine Signals It Will Keep Battling for Bakhmut to Drain Russia

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s top generals want to bolster the defenses of the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, the government said Monday, signaling that rather than retreat from the city, they will pursue a strategy of bleeding the Russian army in a battle of attrition before a planned Ukrainian counterattack.

Ukraine has calculated that the brutal siege is weakening and tying down Russia’s military, even as Kyiv awaits a new arsenal of weaponry from the West, including tanks and long-range precision rockets to enable an expected drive to retake occupied territory elsewhere. This achievement, Ukrainian officials say, justifies their own high casualty toll, though soldiers in the field and some military analysts have questioned the wisdom of defending a mostly abandoned, ruined city.

In seesaw fighting on the city’s artillery-blasted streets and nearby villages and farm fields, the losses on both sides have been staggering, in the longest sustained Russian assault since the invasion last year. Gradual Russian advances have led some Ukrainian officials in recent weeks to hint at the possibility of a retreat to avoid encirclement, but Ukrainian assault brigades went on the attack over the weekend and appeared to push back Russian forces.

The leader of the Wagner mercenary group, which has led Russian assaults on Bakhmut, said on Monday that Russia was at risk of losing the battle — just days after he had claimed to have the Ukrainians on the brink of defeat.

After meeting with top generals on Monday, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that both the commander in chief of Ukraine’s military, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and the commander of ground forces, Oleksandr Syrsky, supported reinforcing Bakhmut’s defenses.

“Both generals replied: do not withdraw and reinforce,” Mr. Zelensky said later in his nightly video address. He added, “I told the commander in chief to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut.”

Neither in his address, nor in a statement issued earlier by his office, was any mention made of a possibility some independent analysts have described — a quiet, gradual Ukrainian pullback into smaller, easier-to-defend pockets within the city, rather than a broad, sudden retreat.

In attacking Bakhmut since last summer, Russia’s signature tactic has been to send waves of assaults by small units that suffer fearful losses, probing defenses and forcing the Ukrainians who gun them down to reveal their positions to follow-up attackers. In particular, fighters recruited from among prison inmates by the Wagner mercenary group have been used this way.

Asked on Monday about the fighting in Bakhmut, Lloyd J. Austin III, the U.S. defense secretary, said, “What I do see on a daily basis is the Russians continuing to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops, and those troops are very quickly meeting their demise.”

The State of the War

No independent count of the dead and wounded has been possible, and each side is seen as inflating the other’s losses while concealing its own. Over the weekend, the secretary of Ukraine’s national security council, Oleksiy Danilev, asserted that Russia’s loses in attacking entrenched positions were seven times Ukraine’s.

But Ukraine, with a population one-third of Russia’s, is less able to absorb the losses, and is trading the lives of experienced soldiers for those of Russian ex-convicts whose Wagner commanders often treat as expendable.

The fighting in Bakhmut has taken a central place in a power struggle between the Russian armed forces and Wagner’s ambitious, self-promoting leader, Mr. Prigozhin, who has repeatedly accused the military leaders of incompetence and of depriving him of needed ammunition. On Monday, he wrote on social media that Wagner’s representative to the regional military command “had his pass canceled and was denied access to the group’s headquarters.”

Later in the day, in an audio message on social media, Mr. Prigozhin claimed that it was his forces that were in danger of being trapped, in a coming Ukrainian counteroffensive, and said that Wagner units needed more men and munitions.

His bureaucratic rival, Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, made a rare visit on Monday to Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory, including the city of Mariupol, the defense ministry said. Video montages released by the ministry showed a stony-faced Mr. Shoigu looking over maps and talking to subordinates, a muted contrast to Mr. Prigozhin’s hyperbolic video dispatches, often claiming to be on the front lines and making unverified claims about Wagner’s advances.

Western officials say Russian forces have suffered around 200,000 killed or wounded, a devastating toll in a little over a year of war, in addition to the loss of thousands of tanks and armored vehicles. To make up for those losses, they have poured into Ukraine inexperienced conscripts called up last fall.

Recent Russian attacks along the front lines in eastern Ukraine were at first regarded as exploratory stages of Russia’s long-anticipated spring offensive, but are increasingly being seen by military analysts as the best that exhausted Russian forces can manage.

Some Ukrainian units inside Bakhmut are expected to deploy to southern Ukraine for a counteroffensive aimed at the occupied city of Melitopol, possibly in the spring, in a bid to split Russian-occupied land in two and even threaten Moscow’s hold on the Crimean peninsula. That would require crossing, with little cover, dozens of miles of flat farmland, which is heavily mined and defended by the Russians.

Capturing Bakhmut would hand Russia its first significant battlefield victory in months, while for Ukraine, the city has become an emblem of resistance.

But withdrawing from Bakhmut would not alter the strategic picture, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian minister of defense, said in an interview on Monday. “If we walked out of Bakhmut they would just move to the next city, using exactly with the same tactics,” Mr. Zagorodnyuk said.

“This tactic has been working,” he said of the Russian human wave attacks, but it has been confined mostly to Bakhmut; it cannot be replicated widely because of a shortage of recruited prisoners.

Russian forces are now attacking the city from three directions and fighting for control of access roads to the west, needed by Ukraine for resupplying troops, evacuating the wounded and for an exit if the decision comes to withdraw.

On Monday morning, Ukraine’s military said that Russian forces “continue attempts to storm the city of Bakhmut and neighboring settlements.”

Mr. Zelensky, who last month called Bakhmut “our fortress” and vowed not to give up the city, used his nightly address on Sunday to praise Ukrainian soldiers defending it for their bravery.

The city’s defense has become a symbol of defiance in Ukraine, even as the Ukrainian military, which had been praised for its adroitness in previous battles, has become enmeshed in a grinding clash in Bakhmut that has persisted for months as casualties mounted. A song lauding the defenders of “fortress Bakhmut” has played on Ukrainian radio. And there is no sign, so far, that Mr. Zelensky is losing popular support for the city’s defense.

“It is one of the toughest battles,” he said of fighting in eastern Ukraine. “Painful and challenging.”

But if the Ukrainians were to pull back to “some very defensible terrain” near the city, “I would not view that as an operational or a strategic setback,” Mr. Austin, the U.S. defense secretary, told reporters while traveling in Jordan. “I certainly don’t want to discount the tremendous work that the Ukrainians’ soldiers and leaders have put into defending Bakhmut, but I think it’s more of a symbolic value than it is a strategic and operational value.”

Ukrainian special forces signaled another act of defiance against Russia on Monday by openly announcing a drone strike inside Russian territory, which destroyed an unmanned observation tower in the Bryansk region. That was a break from Ukraine’s policy of deliberate ambiguity over such strikes inside Russia.

Russia and Ukraine share a land border extending more than 1,200 miles, including several hundred miles in the eastern Donbas region, parts of which are controlled by Moscow. Russia has used territories close to Ukraine — including Bryansk, along Ukraine’s northeastern border — to stage ground, air and artillery assaults on Ukraine throughout the war.

The timing of the attack on the observation tower was not clear, but the Kraken unit, which reports to Ukrainian military intelligence, released a video that it said showed the assault, on its Telegram channel on Monday. It came days after a brief armed incursion into Russia, also in the Bryansk region, by a group of Russian volunteers claiming to fight for Ukraine.

Officials in Kyiv have said they reserve the right to strike targets within Russia that they say are used to attack Ukrainian towns and cities, but have promised not to use weapons supplied by Western allies, who fear Moscow could view that as a provocation.

Reporting was contributed by Marc Santora from Kyiv, Cassandra Vinograd from London and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin.

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