(Kyiv) The Ukrainian army announced on Monday its intention to “reinforce” its positions in Bakhmout, the epicenter of the fighting in the east of the country, refuting speculation of a withdrawal in the face of Russian troops who are trying to encircle this symbolic city.
This announcement comes at a time when the boss of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, Evguéni Prigojine, has once again complained of a lack of ammunition for his men, on the front line in this battle which has been going on since last summer.
Far from backing down, while rumors of a withdrawal have been rife for a week, the commanders-in-chief of the Ukrainian armed forces “have come out in favor of continuing the defensive operation and strengthening our positions in Bakhmout” during a meeting on Monday with the head of state Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian presidency said.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), an American think tank, for its part estimated on Sunday evening that the Ukrainian army was “likely in the process of carrying out a tactical retreat of limited magnitude” in Bakhmout .
A city of some 70,000 inhabitants before the war, Bakhmout has become, because of the length of the battle and the heavy losses suffered by both sides, the symbol of the struggle between Russians and Ukrainians for control of the industrial region of Donbass .
Russian troops have advanced in recent weeks north and south of the city, cutting off three of Ukraine’s four supply routes and leaving only the one leading further west to Chassiv Iar as an exit route.
Near Chassiv Iar, sitting inside his BMP-2 combat vehicle, his face marked with fatigue, a Ukrainian soldier told AFP that he had just spent a month in Bakhmout and had to make repairs on his armour.
“Bahmut will fall. We’re almost surrounded. The units are gradually withdrawing in small groups, ”says the soldier who wanted to remain anonymous.
He points out that the only way to leave Bakhmout is on dirt tracks, and if armored vehicles get stuck, “they are the target of Russian artillery fire”.
Despite the threat of encirclement and the city’s limited strategic importance, the Ukrainians continue to fiercely defend Bakhmout, where President Zelensky visited in December and vowed to hold out “as long as possible”.
While some analysts question the interest of the Ukrainians clinging to this now devastated city, the ISW estimated in a note that the defense of Bakhmout remains “strategically sensible”, because it “continues to ‘exhaust Russian manpower and equipment’.
” Treason ”
On the Russian side, Yevgeny Prigojine, Wagner’s boss, accused, for the second time in less than two weeks, the Russian army of not sending enough ammunition to its mercenaries. He mentioned two possible reasons for the delay: “ordinary bureaucracy or betrayal”.
Last month, Mr. Prigojine had multiplied the virulent criticism of the Russian Minister of Defense, Sergei Shoigu, and the Chief of Staff, Valéri Guerassimov, accusing them of wanting to eliminate Wagner by refusing them what he needs to fight.
In a sign that tensions persist, in a video posted over the weekend, Mr. Prigojine appeared to warn the Russian army, saying that “if Wagner withdraws now from Bakhmout, the whole front will be will collapse”.
A Russian minister in Mariupol
According to the press service of the Ukrainian army, the commander of the ground forces Oleksandr Syrsky went to Bakhmout on Sunday and saw intense fighting there.
“The enemy sent additional Wagner forces into the battle. Our soldiers bravely defend their positions north of Bakhmout, trying to prevent the encirclement of the city,” he said, as quoted by the press service on Telegram.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited the martyr city of Mariupol, devastated by a destructive siege led by his army last spring. According to the Russian army, he inspected reconstruction work in the port city.
For this third visit to the conflict zone, Mr. Choigou notably visited a medical center, another relief center and a new residential area comprising 12 buildings.
The Russian government presented a plan last summer to rebuild Mariupol in three years, a goal that seems ambitious given the scale of the destruction.
During the night from Sunday to Monday, the Ukrainian air force said it had shot down 13 Iranian-made explosive drones out of 15 launched by Russia. It did not report any human losses or material damage.
Last week, Russia reported several Ukrainian drone attacks on its territory and in annexed Crimea. She also denounced an incursion of Ukrainian “saboteurs” in the Briansk region, bordering Ukraine.