Ukrainians watching a movie on TV at a humanitarian aid center in Bakhmut on Feb. 27, 2023 amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Dimitar Dilkoff | Afp | Getty Images
Officials in Kyiv conceded that the situation is rapidly deteriorating around Bakhmut, a besieged mining city in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine that Russian forces have been hellbent on capturing for months.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Monday night that the situation in the Bakhmut area “is getting more and more difficult.”
“The enemy is constantly destroying everything that can be used to protect our positions, to gain a foothold and ensure defense,” he added.
Zelenskyy said those defending Bakhmut — a city that Ukraine has repeatedly described as a “our fortress” due to it being heavily fortified — and the surrounding area were “real heroes” and that Kyiv was trying to ensure its forces have as many weapons as possible there.
Russian forces and mercenary fighters belonging to the Wagner Group have been trying to capture Bakhmut for months, with the city and surrounding area becoming a scene of death and destruction. Despite the relentless fighting, several thousand civilians are estimated to remain in the city.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said Monday on Telegram that “the situation at the front is difficult. The enemy army is increasing the intensity of its assaults. The most difficult situation remains in the Bakhmut direction.”
She said Russia was employing the tactics of “exhaustion and total destruction” but said that Russian forces were experiencing significant losses, losing between 600 and 1,000 people daily, she claimed. Maliar added that Ukraine’s forces were conducting defensive operations in the face of the “numerical superiority of the enemy.”
A view of damage after attacks as Russia-Ukraine war continues in Bakhmut, Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2023.
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Russia also claims to be killing hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers in Donetsk every day but, given the chaotic nature of war and both sides’ interest in accentuating the losses of their opponent, it’s hard to guage the actual number of fatalities in the region.
Needless to say, however, Bakhmut has been labeled as a “meat grinder” even by the head of the Wagner Group mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose forces have been slowly advancing.
Due to the sheer scale of its bombardment and manpower thrown at Bakhmut, Russian forces have made incremental gains in the surrounding area and have gradually encircled the city, defense analysts suggest, although Ukraine’s armed forces continue to insist that they are repelling Russian attacks on Bakhmut and the surrounding settlements.
Still, Russian officials continue to claim that their forces are encircling and even entering the city. On Monday, Yan Gagin, an advisor and spokesperson for the acting head of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, a pro-Russian separatist area in eastern Ukraine, told Russia’s Tass news agency that Russian forces had cut off the ammunition and manpower supplies of the Ukrainian forces in Artemovsk, the Russian name for Bakhmut.
“That’s pretty unrealistic an assessment,” Samuel Ramani, a geopolitical analyst and associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, told CNBC, “[but] unfortunately, I do agree with Zelenskyy that the situation in Bakhmut is getting more and more difficult.”
“Maliar is also pointing to the fact that the ammunition artillery fire coming from the Russians is just quantitatively much larger than what the Ukrainians can pay it back with,” he noted.
“So even with NATO bringing in more ammunition and bringing in Leopard tanks and many other things into the battle lines, it is just too hard for the Ukrainians quantitatively to equal what the Russians are firing,” he said.
“That being said, I don’t think that the Russians are going to have a swift victory in Bakhmut, I think the Ukrainians can hold out for quite a while. The Ukrainians launched a counteroffensive of sorts at the weekend that was ultimately rolled back but the point is, they did gain a little bit of momentum and traction,” he noted.
Russia’s slow but steady march on Bakhmut has raised questions over whether Ukraine will have to decide to withdraw its troops from the city in order to save its personnel. But there are no signs Kyiv is ready to give up just yet.
Looking to maintain morale among fighters, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited the city at the weekend to try to raise spirits among the units fighting there and to discuss the strategy on defending the city.
Local residents walk down a street as the sounds of shelling continue in Bakhmut on February 27, 2023.
Dimitar Dilkoff | Afp | Getty Images
Nonetheless, Syrskyi was reported as saying Tuesday that the situation in Bakhmut was “extremely tense.”
“Despite significant losses, the enemy launched the most prepared assault units of [the] Wagner [Group], who are trying to break through the defenses of our troops and surround the city,” Syrskyi said, according to a statement posted on the official Telegram channel of Ukraine’s ground forces.
RUSI’s Ramani said that while “the Ukrainians are being out-fired and outgunned numerically in terms of personnel, in terms of ammunition, they’re also not going to surrender.” But he said it should be watched whether Ukraine decides to send its elite forces into Bakhmut or whether they reserve those forces for a counteroffensive expected in the spring.
“If I had to make a prediction about Bakhmut it’s that the Ukrainians are going to hold up for some time but as we get closer to the spring, they might make a tactical withdrawal … and redeploy their forces for the counteroffensive and then strike Bakhmut again,” he said.