President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered the Ukrainian army on Monday to strengthen the defense of the city of Bakhmout, epicenter of the fighting in the east of the country, refuting speculation of a withdrawal in the face of Russian troops who have been trying for months to encircle this symbolic city.

On the contrary, Ukrainian officials claimed that the defense of Bakhmout had already constituted a “strategic success” by mobilizing and weakening the Russian offensive forces, which suffered very heavy losses there without gaining a decisive advantage.

“I told the General Staff to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut,” Mr. Zelensky said in his daily video message on Monday evening, reaffirming “that no part of Ukraine can be abandoned” to Russia.

While rumors of a tactical withdrawal had been swirling for a week, the Ukrainian presidency had previously indicated that the commanders-in-chief of the armed forces had “pronounced themselves in favor of the continuation of the defensive operation and a reinforcement of (their) positions in Bakhmout”, during a meeting with the Head of State.

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 four Ukrainian 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 needed to make repairs on his armour.

“Bakhmout will fall. We are almost surrounded. The units are gradually withdrawing in small groups,” said the soldier, who wished to remain anonymous.

He points out that the only way to leave Bakhmout passes on dirt tracks, and if armored vehicles get stuck, “they are the target of Russian artillery fire”.

According to the press service of the Ukrainian army, the commander of the ground forces Oleksandre Syrsky went to Bakhmout on Sunday and saw intense fighting there.

“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.

But 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 “as long as possible “.

While some analysts question the value of Ukrainians clinging to the now devastated city, the ISW said in a note that Bakhmout’s defense actually remains “strategically sensible” because it ” continues to deplete Russian manpower and equipment.”

Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, did not say anything else on Monday evening, telling AFP that there was “a consensus among the military on the need to continue to defend the city and to exhaust the forces enemies, while building new lines of defense in parallel in case the situation changes”.

According to him, “the defense of Bakhmout achieved its objectives” by exhausting the Russian forces giving time to the Ukrainian army to train “tens of thousands of soldiers to prepare a counter-offensive”.

In this sense, whatever happens, the defense of Bakhmout “will constitute a great strategic success”, further estimated Mr. Podoliak.

A senior Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, went further: “Given the current positions of our defenders near Bakhmout, it is impossible to besiege the city,” he claimed.

And in fact, on the Russian side, Evguéni Prigojine, the boss of the paramilitary group Wagner who is on the front line in this battle, said “sound the alarm”, in a video message.

“The Ukrainian army will fight for (Bakhmut) until the end,” he warned.

He blamed, for the second time in less than two weeks, the Russian army for not sending enough ammunition to its mercenaries.

Last month, Mr. Prigojine, reputed to be close to President Vladimir Putin, had multiplied the virulent criticism, even insulting, at the address of the Russian military command with which he is in competition in this war.

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.

Finally, the head of Ukrainian diplomacy Dmytro Kouleba on Monday called for an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) after the release of a video purporting to show a Ukrainian prisoner of war being executed by Russian soldiers after shouting “Slava Ukraïni!” (Glory to Ukraine).

06/03/2023 22:19:36 – Kiev (Ukraine) (AFP) © 2023 AFP