Front Line Shifts in Russia and Ukraine’s Battle for Bakhmut, Analysts Say

Ukraine insisted on Saturday that its forces were fending off relentless Russian attacks in Bakhmut, even as analysts said that Moscow’s forces had captured most of the embattled city’s east and established a new front line cutting through its center.

Gradual Russian advances and a high number of Ukrainian casualties have fueled talk of a retreat from Bakhmut, a city in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has been decimated by months of fighting. But Ukrainian officials say that Russian losses in Bakhmut are worse than their own, and they have signaled that they will pursue a strategy of bleeding the Russian Army before a planned Ukrainian counterattack.

Despite the Ukrainian military’s assertion that it was holding on in Bakhmut, it was becoming increasingly clear that its grip on the city was tenuous and that Russian forces were making new gains. Although Bakhmut’s strategic value is debatable, Moscow is looking for a victory after a series of setbacks.

Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, said this past week that his fighters had seized the eastern half of Bakhmut — a claim that Ukraine’s military rejected at the time, saying that its soldiers were still fighting there.

But Britain’s defense intelligence agency said on Saturday that over the past four days, Wagner fighters had “taken control” of most of the city’s east. The Bakhmutka River, which flows through the city’s center, now marks the front line and could stymie further Russian advances west, it added.

The State of the War

Recent satellite images showed that bridges across the Bakhmutka had been destroyed. Ukraine had earlier blown up pontoon crossings to prevent Russian advances over the river — and appeared to now be using it as a new defensive line, the British agency said.

“With Ukrainian units able to fire from fortified buildings to the west, this area has become a killing zone, likely making it highly challenging for Wagner forces attempting to continue their frontal assault westward,” it said, noting that Ukrainian forces were still vulnerable amid continued Russian efforts to encircle them.

That assessment was largely echoed by the Institute for the Study of War, a research group in Washington, which said Friday evening that Russian forces had “made gains” in Bakhmut and were clearing the eastern part of the city.

Ukraine’s military said in a statement on Saturday that its troops were “giving a decent rebuff” to Russian forces and “continuing to hold the city.” It said that the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, was at “the most important area” of the front line and taking the “necessary measures to keep Bakhmut under Ukrainian control.”

Both Ukrainian and Russian officials have suggested that the fall of Bakhmut could help pave the way for Moscow’s forces to make a broader push in eastern Ukraine. With Ukraine expected to launch its own offensive in the coming weeks, General Syrsky made clear on Saturday that defending Bakhmut was key to those efforts.

“It is necessary to gain time to accumulate reserves and start the spring counteroffensive, which is not far-off,” he said in the statement.

Rather than withdraw from the city, as had been rumored, President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that Ukraine would send reinforcements. That message was underscored late Friday when Mr. Zelensky again discussed Bakhmut “and our opportunities to strengthen there” with his military leadership, according to a statement from the presidency.

The battle for Bakhmut has been the longest sustained Russian assault since the invasion last year, with a staggering casualty toll for both sides. In recent weeks, both sides have tried to justify their losses in a minor city of limited strategic value by presenting them as benefiting their cause. Each makes essentially the same claim: that the fighting there is worth the cost because it is wearing down the opponent.

Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.

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