Ukraine’s military vowed on Tuesday not to give up the pulverised eastern city of Bakhmut as it prepares to launch a long-promised counteroffensive against Russian forces.
General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of ground forces, underlined the importance Kyiv attaches to holding Bakhmut as preparations continue for a counterattack which it hopes will change the dynamic of the war.
The battle has symbolic importance for both sides, with Ukraine still holding on to some parts of the city after months of fierce fighting against regular Russian troops and the Wagner mercenary force.
“Together with the commanders, we have made a number of necessary decisions aimed at ensuring the effective defence and inflicting maximum losses on the enemy,” Syrskyi said in remarks released after a visit to troops in Bakhmut.
“We will continue, despite all the forecasts and advice, to hold Bakhmut, destroying Wagner and other most combat-capable units of the Russian army,” he said.
Syrskyi said on Monday that Ukrainian units had ousted Russian forces from some positions in Bakhmut.
Ukrainian deputy defence minister Hanna Malyar said control of some parts of Bakhmut was changing hands.
“There are positions lost, and positions we are driving the enemy out of. Fierce fighting continues – as of now, the city is controlled by our armed forces,” she told the WeUkraine television channel.
Wagner units advanced up to 160 metres (yards) in some directions on Tuesday, founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on the Telegram messaging app, repeating claims that Ukrainian forces now control less than three sq km (1.2 sq miles) of Bakhmut.
Prigozhin also repeated his complaints that Moscow was not supplying his forces with enough ammunition.
Reuters was unable to verify the battlefield situation.
Russia sees Bakhmut, once home to 70,000 people, as a stepping stone to attacking other Ukrainian cities.
Meanwhile, after missing multiple self-imposed deadlines for capturing Bakhmut, Russia continues to throw more of its soldiers into the grinding battle in the Donetsk region in a desperate bid for something to tout during next week’s Victory Day parade in Moscow.
Russia celebrates the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany in World War II every year on May 9, and President Vladimir Putin has used the holiday to boost his image as a strongman over the course of his decades in power. But this year’s celebrations will be somewhat muted, with Putin cancelling parades in Russia’s Kursk and Belgorod regions, which border Ukraine, and in Russian-occupied Crimea, citing security concerns. With Moscow now in the second year of its full-scale war on Ukraine and no sign of imminent victory, Putin is pushing to win a battle to sell to Russians on May 9.
But with the U.S. estimating that 20,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in Ukraine since December and a further 80,000 injured, Kyiv is determined to rob Putin of any positive PR, and Ukrainian forces are digging in, with heavy fighting continuing around Bakhmut.
“The occupiers can already claim the Guinness record for the frequency of changing deadlines. After May 1 did not work, it was postponed to May 9,” said Serhii Cherevatyi, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Army Command East, referring to Russia’s attempts to take Bakhmut, a strategic town that has seen some of the heaviest fightings in recent months.
Though Russia reportedly controls most of Bakhmut, Cherevatyi said Ukraine still holds the western part of the town and that supply routes are open. Although Russians are throwing more soldiers at their positions, Kyiv’s forces say they are holding the line and have even managed to take back some territory.
“Despite the significant losses of the enemy, new assault groups of Wagner, fighters of other private companies and paratroopers are constantly rushing into battle. But the enemy fails to take control of the city,” Ukrainian Land Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi said in a statement. “In some parts of the city, the enemy was counterattacked by our units and left some positions.”