Ukraine’s push around Bakhmut presents Russia with tough decisions about its resources.
The Ukrainian military says that it has been moving forward despite fierce resistance from Russian soldiers to the north and south of Bakhmut, putting greater pressure on Moscow’s forces to devote resources to the battle as they brace for a wider Ukrainian counteroffensive.
Bakhmut, once a city of 80,000 known for its sparkling wine and salt mines, has been the site of some of the deadliest urban combat in a generation. After nearly a year of fighting, Russian forces have seized control of about 90 percent of the ruined city. But after months on the defensive, Ukraine last week launched a series of coordinated counterattacks and, in a matter of days, reclaimed ground around the city that it took Russian forces months to seize.
Over the previous 48 hours, Ukraine was able to build on last week’s gains and drive forward about two kilometers in some directions, Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for the Ukrainian forces fighting in the east said on national television on Monday night.
Without going into further detail, he said that on some fronts the forward push had been slower, with battles fought over areas about the size of three football fields. Colonel Cherevaty also said Russian forces were counterattacking in some areas. While his claims could not be independently verified, Russian military bloggers also have noted Ukrainian gains around Bakhmut over the past week.
The gains are still small geographically — a few dozen square miles at most — but they represent a shift in momentum that Ukrainian commanders say they hope to build on when they launch their widely anticipated counteroffensive in other places along the 600-mile front line.
They also are presenting Russia with a difficult decision about the cost it is willing to pay to keep fighting for the devastated city, potentially drawing resources from other areas that could soon come under attack.
The looming Ukrainian counteroffensive is not a single event, according to Ukrainian commanders and military analysts. President Volodymyr Zelensky warned last week that it could be delayed without more weapons from allies, but it was not clear if that was misdirection, and Ukraine in recent weeks has stepped up its assaults on Russian positions deeper behind enemy lines.
Despite an influx of Western weapons to aid in the counteroffensive, Ukrainian commanders do not expect the fight ahead to be easy. Andriy Biletsky, the commander of Ukraine’s 3rd Assault Brigade, which made the initial breakthrough of Russian lines around Bakhmut last week, said in an interview over the weekend that Russian “tank units are being pulled up, fresh units are being pulled up.” As he spoke, the sound of nearby fighting echoed in the distance.
The fighting for Bakhmut is fluid, but the Ukrainian military and Russian military bloggers give a picture of where the most pitched battles are playing out.
To the south, Ukrainian soldiers and commanders have reported an advance through a pocket of forests south of the village of Ivanivske as they move in the direction of Klishchiivka, a small village that Wagner forces claimed to have captured in late January. The village is viewed as strategically important because it sits on high ground directly east of roads into Bakhmut that can serve as supply routes.
To the north, both sides reported fighting around the highlands surrounding the Berkhovskoye reservoir. The Russian Ministry of Defense said over the weekend that its forces were regrouping around the reservoir to “increase the strength of the line of defense.”
The Russian military blogger Gray Zone, who is associated with Wagner, reported on Friday that newly won Ukrainian positions give them “an advantageous tactical position, which allows them to conduct reconnaissance and effectively use any type of weapons” on Russian troops in the valley below and into the city itself.
But as Russian forces have lost ground around the city, Ukrainian officials say the onslaught against Ukrainian fighters inside the city has only intensified.
“The enemy above all is trying to capture the town itself, undertaking desperate efforts to this end,” Colonel Cherevaty said.
Nataliia Novosolova and Anastasia Kuznietsova contributed research.