Ukraine ordered on Thursday a mandatory evacuation for some residents of Kupiansk as Russian forces continue shelling the city.
Kupiansk, which is in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine, is described by The Moscow Times as a “key city and rail hub.” Analysts who spoke with Newsweek said Kupiansk could be more important from a strategic viewpoint than the more publicized city of Bakhmut.
Early into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24, 2022, his forces captured Kupiansk. Ukraine managed to liberate the city this past September, although recent reports indicate it could lose control of Kupiansk once again. These reports come as the Wagner Group, which consists of Russian mercenaries, has said it has “practically encircled” Bakhmut, which lies about 80 miles southeast of Kupiansk.
“No city outside of Kyiv is more politically important than Bakhmut,” John Spencer, a retired U.S. Army major and chair of Urban Warfare Studies at the Madison Policy Forum, told Newsweek. “Kupiansk has more tactical value.”
The main photograph shows a Ukrainian battle tank on a road near Kupiansk in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on February 13. The inset shows a Ukrainian national flag on an electrical post in Kupiansk on February 13. Ukraine has announced a mandatory evacuation of vulnerable residents of Kupiansk.
Photos by YASUYOSHI CHIBA/AFP/Getty Images
Kharkiv’s regional governor, Oleg Synegubov, said recent Russian strikes hit several settlements in Kupiansk and other Kharkiv communities, and a partial evacuation was ordered, according to Agence France-Presse.
“Mandatory evacuation of families with children and residents with limited mobility began in Kupiansk community,” the Kharkiv regional military administration said on its website.
William Reno, a professor and chair of the political science department at Northwestern University, told Newsweek that he agrees that Kupiansk is “more significant” from a tactual standpoint than Bakhmut, which holds mostly a “political value” for both sides.
Bakhmut became so symbolically and politically important because of all the intense fighting that has occurred there in the past six-plus months, Spencer said.
Bakhmut held little significance, outside of being a center of Ukraine’s salt industry, until Yevgeniy Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, set his sights on capturing it. In recent months, Moscow has sent in forces to accompany Prigozhin’s mercenaries, and Russia has suffered high casualties as a result.
As the back-and-forth fighting in the city continued over the months, “Bakhmut holds” became a rallying cry for Ukrainians, and when President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington, D.C., this past December, he presented Congress with a flag from the city. He told the lawmakers that “the fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom.
While a defeat in Bakhmut would be a damaging blow for Ukraine in terms of political optics, “the loss of Kupiansk would be concerning because of where it sits along the Oskil River,” Spencer said.
“Unlike Bakhmut, which isn’t a stepping stone to anything, Kupiansk is actually a stepping stone towards [the city of] Izium. And Izium is a vital transportation hub,” he added. “Bakhmut has zero real tactical value.”
“Any place that serves as a cross roads for transportation, whether it is road, rail or ship, is going to matter, particularly long term,” Matthew Hoh, a former U.S. Marine Corps captain and State Department officer, told Newsweek. “Operationally, the potential seizure of Kupiansk is significant as it shows the continual pressure that Russia is exerting along a nearly 600-mile front.”
Hoh added, “Understandably, news of evacuation, along with continued Russian advances, village by village, will be hard on the Ukrainian people.”
According to Reno, “It is more useful to view Kupiansk in the bigger picture of Russia’s attempts to throw more soldiers and materials into the fight to exhaust Ukrainian forces before the arrival of the West’s tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.”
Meanwhile, he said, the “Ukrainian strategy right now appears focused on absorbing Russian attacks with the aim of exhausting Russia’s offensive potential before the Ukrainians take the initiative in coming weeks.”
The fighting in Kupiansk, Bakhmut and locations throughout Ukraine are part of what Putin has called his “special military operation” in the country. The Russian leader has given multiple reasons for the invasion, including unsubstantiated claims that neo-Nazi sentiment is growing throughout Ukraine and that the West provoked Russia into war.
“We aren’t fighting the Ukrainian people,” Putin said in his February state of the nation speech. Ukraine, he went on, “has become [a] hostage of the Kyiv regime and its Western masters, which have effectively occupied the country.”
Western officials have denied these claims and say international support for Ukraine is essential for the country’s survival.
“If Russia withdraws its troops today, the war is over,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a February 18 press conference. “Of course, if Ukraine stops fighting today, Ukraine is over.”