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Speed of the essence as Russia seeks Bakhmut victory to push east – Zelensky

KYIV – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has publicly committed his troops to holding out in Bakhmut after days in which they had seemed likely to withdraw and prolonging the war’s bloodiest battle in a bid to break Moscow’s assault force.

Russia vowed on Tuesday to capture Bakhmut, the epicentre of fierce fighting for months, as a precursor for offensives deeper into eastern Ukraine.

Bakhmut’s capture would provide a stepping stone for Russia to advance on two bigger Donetsk cities, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, and give Moscow momentum after months of battlefield setbacks following its invasion last February.

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Russia has sent thousands of troops in human wave attacks over recent weeks to try to capture the eastern Ukrainian city and secure its first battlefield victory in more than half a year. Ukrainian forces have dug trenches further west and in recent days had seemed to be preparing to pull out.

But Ukraine pledged on Monday to bolster its defences in front-line Bakhmut, after reports that Kyiv was withdrawing from the city that has become a symbolic prize in the war.

Zelensky’s remarks in an overnight address suggested Kyiv had elected not only to stay and fight on but to reinforce the city, apparently convinced that Russia’s losses in trying to storm it were still far greater than those of the defenders.

“The command unanimously supported” the decision not to withdraw, Zelensky said. “There were no other positions. I told the commander in chief to find the appropriate forces to help our guys in Bakhmut.”

Bakhmut, an industrial town once known for its sparkling wine production and salt mines, had an estimated pre-war population of some 80,000 people.

But Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told regional media on Tuesday that fewer than 4,000 civilians now remain.

“Approximately 38 children, as far as we know, remain in Bakhmut today,” Vereshchuk said.

Yelena Vyacheslavskaya, 35, and her daughter Kira, 7, who were evacuated from Bakhmut district in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict, stand in a corridor of a temporary accommodation centre in a local dormitory in Shakhtarsk in the Donetsk Region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, on March 2, 2023. Alexander Ermochenko/REUTERS

Both Moscow and Kyiv said on Tuesday that the fight for the town was exacting a huge cost in military personnel on both sides.

Plea to allies

Zelensky urged Ukraine’s allies on Tuesday to be speedy in sending more military help as Nato defence ministers met and Russia bombarded the eastern front line in what appeared to be the early salvoes of a new offensive.

Much of Russia’s artillery fire was focused on Bakhmut.

NATO defence ministers met in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the war and stockpiles.

Ukraine is using shells faster than the West can make them.

Zelensky said Russia was in a hurry to achieve as much as it could with its latest push before Ukraine and its allies could gather strength.

“That is why speed is of the essence,” he said in an evening video address.

Russia, which launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago and claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of its territory, says taking Bakhmut would be a step towards seizing the surrounding industrial Donbas region, a major war aim.

“The liberation of Artemovsk continues,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said in televised remarks, using the Soviet-era name for Bakhmut, re-adopted by the invading Russians.

“The city is an important hub for defending Ukrainian troops in the Donbas. Taking it under control will allow further offensive actions to be conducted deep into Ukraine’s defensive lines.”

Western strategists say the ruined city has limited value,and Russia’s assault may be motivated by a need to give President Vladimir Putin a symbolic victory for a winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of conscripted reservists and mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner private army.

The Ukrainian military command on Tuesday reported a record 1,600 Russians killed over the previous 24 hours. Such figures of enemy dead cannot be confirmed and the sides do not release regular figures of their own casualties. But past Ukrainian reports of similar spikes in Russian losses have corresponded with major failed Russian assaults.

Reuters journalists have not been inside Bakhmut for a week and could not independently verify the situation there.

Urban warfare typically favours defenders. Some Ukrainian officials have spoken in recent days of a ratio of as many as seven Russians killed at Bakhmut for every Ukrainian lost.

“The opportunity to damage the Wagner Group’s elite elements, along with other elite units if they are committed, in a defensive urban warfare setting where the attrition gradient strongly favours Ukraine is an attractive one,” wrote the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Still, not every Western expert agrees with the wisdom of Ukraine fighting on in Bakhmut.

“From artillery ammo shortages, increasingly contested lines of communication, and an attritional battle in unfavourable terrain – this fight doesn’t play to Ukraine’s advantages as a force,” wrote Michael Kofman, a US-based expert on Russia’s military who visited Bakhmut last week.

Power struggle

On Russia’s side, the Bakhmut battle has exposed a rift between the regular military and Wagner, whose boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has released videos in recent days accusing the defence ministry of withholding ammunition from his men.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force, speaks in Paraskoviivka, Ukraine in this still image from an undated video released on March 3, 2023. Picture: Concord Press Service/ REUTERS

The head of the mercenary group, which is spearheading the longest battle of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, has complained his forces still lack ammunition, blaming possible “betrayal”.

Kremlin-ally Prigozhin, whose recruits have been fighting for months to capture the battle-scarred city of Bakhmut, has been entangled in a power struggle with the defence ministry and accused them of withholding supplies.

In a post on social media late on Sunday, Prigozhin complained that Russian reservists meant to deploy to Bakhmut had been diverted and that ammunition promised by the military was days late in arriving.

“We are trying to understand what the reasons are — the usual bureaucracy or betrayal,” Prigozhin said in reference to the deliveries of ammunition.

The Russian defence ministry denies withholding ammunition from Wagner but has not responded to Prigozhin’s latest accusations. The Kremlin has remained silent over the feud.

Mark Hertling, a retired former commander of US ground forces in Europe, said the quarrel among Russian commanders helps Kyiv.

“The opponent – in this case, Ukraine – rejoices, as a lack of unity of command creates enemy dysfunction and countless offensive opportunities,” he tweeted.

Outcry over prisoner video

Meanwhile, a video apparently showing Russian soldiers gunning down an unarmed Ukrainian prisoner of war caused an outcry across Ukraine. The man says “Glory to Ukraine” before multiple shots are heard. A voice is heard saying “Die, bitch” in Russian as the man slumps to the ground.

“I want us all in unity to respond to his words: ‘Glory to the hero. Glory to the heroes. Glory to Ukraine.’ And we will find the murderers,” Zelensky said in his televised address.

Ukraine’s foreign minister on Monday urged the International Criminal Court to probe footage circulating on social media that he said showed Russian forces killing a Ukrainian prisoner of war.

Russia denies carrying out war crimes in Ukraine, which it invaded a year ago claiming to be responding to a security threat from its neighbour’s ties to the West.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed as well as soldiers on both sides. Russia has razed Ukrainian cities to the ground and set millions of civilians to flight in what Kyiv and the West call an unprovoked war of conquest.

A general view shows buildings damaged by a Russian military strike, amid their attack on Ukraine, in the front-line city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk region, on February 27, 2023. Picture: Alex Babenko/REUTERS

While Russia has made gains in recent weeks around Bakhmut, its winter offensive has otherwise been a failure, yielding no significant gains in major assaults further north and south.

Kyiv, which recaptured swathes of territory in the second half of 2022, has spent the last three months focusing on defence, trying to exhaust the attacking Russians before an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive later this year.

In Velyka Novosilka, a village along the Donbas front, remaining residents shelter in darkness in a cellar while artillery could be heard rumbling outside. Pet fish darted in an aquarium. A pot was boiling on a stove.

“Since the war started, almost every building was razed. Many houses were destroyed, many houses were burnt.Many people left, but many still remained here because it is their land, their motherland,” said resident Iryna Babkina, 46.

“I want peace and shelling to be over. I want to live under the peaceful sky,” she said. “I think things will get better very soon, we very much hope for that. It will be Ukraine.”

REUTERS and AFP

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