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Ukraine Signals It Will Keep Battling for Bakhmut to Drain Russia - The New York Times - 06.03.23

Gradual Russian advances and high Ukrainian casualties have fuelled talk of a retreat from the eastern city, but Ukrainians say Russian losses are worse, a reason to keep them fighting says Andrew E. Kramer

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.

Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, 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

  • Bakhmut: After months of epic struggle, the fight over the Ukrainian city had seemed to be reaching a climax, with Russian forces close to encircling the city. Then Ukrainian assault brigades went on the attack.

  • Action in the Skies: Against the odds, Ukraine’s helicopter brigades are using aging vehicles to fight a better equipped adversary.

  • Arming the World: As traditional weapons suppliers like the United States face wartime production shortages, South Korea has stepped in to fill the gap by arming Ukraine’s allies — but not Ukraine itself, to try to avoid provoking Russia.

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.”

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Ukraine Signals It Will Keep Battling for Bakhmut to Drain Russia - by Andrew E
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Reporting was contributed by Marc Santora from Kyiv, Cassandra Vinograd from London and Anatoly Kurmanaev from Berlin.

Andrew E. Kramer is the Times bureau chief in Kyiv. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power. @AndrewKramerNYT

A version of this article appears in print on March 7, 2023, Section A, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: ‘Do Not Withdraw’ From Bakhmut, Kyiv’s Top Generals Advise Zelensky. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

Ukrainian soldiers on a tank headed in the direction of the frontline near Bakhmut this month. Credit...Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times.

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