With Ukraine Under Pressure in Bakhmut, Fight Becomes a Battle Over Roads
Ukraine’s military said that Russia was inching ahead in its efforts to encircle the city but that it had beaten back several attacks on supply routes.
A Ukrainian artillery unit firing at Russian positions near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Friday amid signs of an imminent Ukrainian retreat.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York TimesMarch 4, 2023Updated 12:41 p.m. ET
KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces repelled multiple Russian attacks on Saturday in fighting around the partly encircled city of Bakhmut, which has come down to a yard-by-yard battle for vital roads that supply the city’s defenders.
But the Ukrainian military acknowledged that soldiers inside the city were now encircled on three sides by a combined force of the Russian Army and the Wagner private military company, which includes fighters recruited from prisons.
On Friday, the company’s owner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, taunted President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in a video, saying that only one road remained open to the west of Bakhmut, a city in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian commanders say that a counterattack this past week pushed Russian forces away from at least one of the embattled roads into the city, for the moment easing resupply for troops inside.
In any case, the seven-month battle for Bakhmut — Russia’s longest-running sustained assault since the invasion last year — is now being decided by seesaw fighting around the rural roads, which cut through rolling, grassy hills and small villages to the west of the city.
A Ukrainian police van on Saturday on a highway west of Bakhmut.Credit…Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated PressOne of the roads heads west to the town of Chasiv Yar. The other, which was more open after the Ukrainian counterattack, leads southwest to the town of Ivanivske. Ukraine has fallback positions in the hills along both routes.
Much is at stake. Although military analysts say it is unlikely that Russia could steamroll deeper into Ukrainian territory if it captured Bakhmut, the city’s fall would hand President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia a symbolic prize as the first major city taken by his forces since July.
In waves of assaults by Wagner’s forces through the fall and winter, and with relentless artillery, Russia inched toward the city from the south and the north, trying to encircle the Ukrainians inside.
Inside the city, street fighting has broken out, with both sides holed up in abandoned houses and factories, fighting block by block. “There is fighting in the city,” the deputy mayor, Oleksandr Marchenko, told the BBC. “Thanks to the Ukrainian armed forces, they still haven’t taken control of the city.”
Ukrainian soldiers at an artillery position near Bakhmut on Thursday.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York TimesThe Ukrainian military said in its morning battlefield assessment on Saturday that Russia had continued its efforts to encircle the city over the past 24 hours. “The defenders rebuffed multiple assaults,” the military said of its forces, providing few details other than to list yet another Russian assault on a village straddling the road that Ukraine said it had recently cleared of Russian forces.
Britain’s military intelligence agency said Saturday that two key bridges had been blown up. One is on the road to Chasiv Yar; it was not immediately clear if that closed off supplies or if the Ukrainians have a workaround. The other bridge was a pontoon crossing the small Bakhmutka River within the city.
The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based analytical group, wrote on Friday that Ukrainian troops had blown up the bridges, a sign they were preparing to withdraw. The blown-up bridge on the Chasiv Yar road would “limit Russian egress routes out of Bakhmut” on the heels of the retreating Ukrainians, the group wrote.
Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu of Russia, second from left, inspecting Russian troops at an undisclosed location in Ukraine.Credit…Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, via Associated PressThe Ukrainian military, if it retreats, would probably do so stealthily, trying to fall back with minimal casualties, military analysts have said. It may pull back to the city’s western neighborhoods, using the Bakhmutka River as a defensive line in the city.
In the worst case, the thousands of Ukrainian troops fighting in Bakhmut could become surrounded, starved of ammunition and be killed or pushed to surrender, but analysts deemed that outcome unlikely.
Despite the indications of an imminent retreat, Ukraine’s military continued to express resolve. Gen. Viktor Khorenko, the head of Ukraine’s special operations forces, visited Bakhmut just a day after the commander of the ground forces went to the city. Ukrainian commanders say they want to hold on and degrade Russian forces as long as they can.
General Khorenko “worked out a number of urgent issues regarding the provision and organization of the work” of units, the command said in a statement.
Residents on bikes as an evacuation bus driven by volunteers headed in the opposite direction, in Chasiv Yar, near Bakhmut, on Wednesday.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York TimesRussia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, paid his own visit to troops elsewhere in the Donbas region, Russia’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday. He inspected a frontline command post in the southern part of Donetsk and was updated on “the current situation and troops’ action,” according to the ministry, which released a video showing him awarding medals.
Though Ukraine’s grip seems to be slipping, either side could double down, pouring in men and weaponry to prolong the battle, analysts say, but only at the risk of sapping their armies’ strength for other fights.
A Ukrainian withdrawal would suggest hopes for success later — in a long-anticipated counteroffensive that would put into play a new arsenal of Western heavy weaponry, including German Leopard II tanks. Soldiers in Bakhmut could be redirected to that offensive, analysts say.
“There might be a trade-off between committing the resources necessary to hold Bakhmut and depleting forces needed for the spring offensive,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a think tank based in Philadelphia.
Much is riding on the battle for the access roads. Oleh Kadanov, a Ukrainian volunteer who assists the military, drove the road from Chasiv Yar to Bakhmut on Tuesday. “There were not too many craters,” he said in an interview. At that time, the road was not under direct tank or machine gun fire, he said.
The city itself, he said, was “scary.” Bombarded from three sides by Russian artillery and in the grips of street fighting, “there were no safe places” once inside.
For Russia, capturing Bakhmut would open these roads to the west — but not by much. Ukraine has multiple layers of defenses in the Donbas region, sometimes seen in long trenches cut through fields to the rear of the current front line. So if Russia does ultimately claim Bakhmut, the grueling war of attrition could simply shift a few miles to the west.