KOSTYANTYNIVKA, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces have been reduced to small footholds in the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, which despite its limited strategic importance has emerged as the war’s bloodiest battlefield. But they have made gains on the Russian flanks, in a move to encircle the city and extend the fight there, according to Ukrainian officials and military personnel in the field.
“I’m in the trenches. We’ve fortified ourselves in the positions” that Russia once held, Yuriy, a soldier in the Ukrainian army’s 5th Separate Assault Brigade, wrote in a text message from a position to the south of Bakhmut, near the village of Klishchiivka. He spoke on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
“Around us are a lot of dead Russians,” he said.
Ukraine still holds slivers of the city, including the area around what has become a landmark of Ukraine’s last redoubt: a destroyed sculpture of a Soviet MiG fighter jet, according to multiple military personnel involved in defending the position, which Russian forces continue to contest.
Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, Ukraine’s eastern military commander who made a surprise visit to the front lines Sunday, acknowledged that Ukraine controls only a “small part” of Bakhmut. But he said the new aim is to surround the city in a “tactical encirclement,” echoing a statement posted to Telegram by Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar.
Word of this strategy to prolong the fight, regardless of who technically controls the city, emerged as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky painted a bleak picture of the state of the battle in response to questions posed during a visit to Hiroshima, Japan, for a Group of Seven summit meeting. His remarks raised questions about what a Ukrainian victory would look like, given the destruction of the city and the costs its defenders have already paid.
“You have to understand, there is nothing,” Zelensky said Sunday — nothing of Bakhmut as it once stood left to control.
The city, in the northeast of the Donetsk region, was home to some 70,000 people before Russia invaded Ukraine last year. It has since been devastated, hit by some of the fiercest fighting of the conflict, as Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenary forces, made up largely of freed Russian prisoners, gained ground block by block.
On Saturday, Wagner founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin claimed that his forces had at last captured the entire city, and the Kremlin released a statement from Russian President Vladimir Putin that praised the liberation of the city, referring to it by its Soviet-Russian name, Artyomovsk. Ukraine rejected the claims.
The full capture would be a rare win for Moscow, which has struggled to lock in clear victories since the early days of the war.
But the Russian side has been riven with internal differences over Bakhmut, with Prigozhin unleashing a stream of public criticism of his Russian military counterparts over their handling of the assault. Ukrainian forces have been able to exploit these differences to hold off an enemy that greatly outnumbers them.
Stanislav Bunyatov, 22, a soldier with the 24th Separate Assault Battalion who was injured on Wednesday in fighting near the villages of Klishchiivka and Ivanivske, said that his unit was able to attack during a period when Wagner mercenaries were being replaced by Russian soldiers.
“They were not ready for us,” said Bunyatov, who is in the city of Dnipro recovering from an injury caused by grenade shrapnel.
Accounts of Ukrainian success outside Bakhmut stand in contrast to tales of setbacks within the city. On the roads to Chasiv Yar, a town west of Bakhmut that serves as a staging ground for Ukrainian forces, some soldiers offered pessimistic views of the battle for the city.
“Bakhmut is done,” a 47-year-old soldier in the 24th Brigade, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share his candid assessment, said Sunday. He said he had been in the city the day before.
Ukrainian advances have been reported in nearby areas; commanders announced on May 9 — Victory Day in Russia — that they had taken more than a square mile of territory to the city’s south. Officials have portrayed this as a strategic move.
Such advances make it “very difficult for the enemy to stay in Bakhmut,” Maliar wrote Sunday on Telegram, referring to the capture of high ground outside the city.
The fight for Bakhmut has confounded some analysts, who described it as strategically irrelevant to the broader war. Ukraine is currently preparing a long-awaited spring counteroffensive that it hopes will penetrate Russian defenses on at least one part of its 200-mile front line.
If Russian forces are tied up in Bakhmut, some have argued, it could hurt their preparedness elsewhere.
President Biden said in Hiroshima on Sunday that Russia has suffered more than 100,000 casualties in Bakhmut, a startling figure if accurate.
Russia’s difficulty in holding Bakhmut may be compounded by Prigozhin’s claim that he intends to withdraw Wagner fighters from the city.
Ukraine, some pessimism aside, appears willing to continue the fight. Bunyatov, the soldier recovering from a grenade injury, said he hopes to return to the front lines, preferably in Bakhmut.
“My brothers in arms are there,” he said.
War in Ukraine: What you need to know
The latest: The Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant in southern Ukraine were severely damaged on May 6, unleashing flooding near the front lines. Ukraine and Russia each blamed the other for attacking the site, destroying the plant and damaging the dam. As water gushed from the facility on the Dnieper River, which separates Ukrainian and Russian forces, officials on both sides ordered residents to evacuate.
The fight: Russia took control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, where thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers died in the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, in late May. But holding the city will be difficult. The Wagner Group, responsible for the fight and victory in Bakhmut, is allegedly leaving and being replaced by the Russian army.
The upcoming counteroffensive: After a rainy few months left the ground muddy, sticky and unsuitable for heavy vehicles in southern Ukraine, temperatures are rising — and with them, the expectations of a long-awaited counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces.
The frontline: The Washington Post has mapped out the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
How you can help: Here are ways those in the United States can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.
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