Ukrainian military leaders are determined to hold onto Bakhmut, Kyiv officials said on Monday, even as Russian forces continued to encroach on the devastated eastern Ukrainian city that they have sought to capture for months at the cost of thousands of lives.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said he chaired a meeting with military officials during which the country’s top brass advocated strengthening Ukrainian positions there.
Intense Russian shelling targeted the Donetsk region city and nearby villages as Moscow deployed more resources there in an apparent bid to finish off Bakhmut’s resistance, according to local officials.
“Civilians are fleeing the region to escape Russian shelling continuing round the clock as additional Russian troops and weapons are being deployed there,” Donetsk Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said.
Russian forces that invaded Ukraine just over a year ago have been bearing down on Bakhmut since August, putting Kyiv’s troops on the defensive but unable to deliver a knockout blow.
Some analysts say its possible fall is unlikely to bring a turning point in the conflict.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin endorsed that view on Monday, saying during a visit to Jordan that Bakhmut has “more of a symbolic value than … strategic and operational value”.
In recent days, Ukrainian units destroyed two key bridges just outside Bakhmut, including one linking it to the nearby hilltop town of Chasiv Yar along the last remaining Ukrainian resupply route, according to UK military intelligence officials and other Western analysts.
Demolishing the bridges could be part of efforts to slow down the Russian offensive if Ukrainian forces start pulling back from the city.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group military company that spearheaded the Bakhmut offensive, has been at loggerheads with the Russian defense ministry and repeatedly accused of failing to provide his forces with ammunition.
On Sunday, he again criticized top military brass for moving slowly to deliver the promised ammunition, questioning whether the delay was caused by “red tape or treason”.
Putin’s stated ambition is to seize full control of the four provinces, including Donetsk, that Moscow illegally annexed last year. Russia controls about half of Donetsk province, and to take the remaining half of that province its forces must go through Bakhmut.
Ukraine and its Western allies do not recognize any of Russia’s annexation moves, dismissing them as meaningless attempts at grabbing land.
Bakhmut is the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian troops took back Izyum in Kharkiv province during a counteroffensive last September.
Bakhmut has taken on almost mythic importance to its defenders.
It has become like Mariupol — the port city in the same province that Russia captured after an 82-day siege that eventually came down to a mammoth steel mill where determined Ukrainian fighters held out along with civilians.