Losing control of Bakhmut could shape the future of the war against Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said.
More than a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion of Ukraine, some of the most bloody combat remains concentrated around Bakhmut, a city in the Donetsk region, one of the two areas that comprise the Donbas, a separatist area that Russia said it wanted to liberate at the start of the war.
Zelensky has vowed to keep his troops fighting for the city. He explained why Ukraine will not withdraw from Bakhmut in a new interview with CNN on Tuesday, explaining that giving up control of the city could have significant impact, allowing Russia to have easier access to other areas in Eastern Ukraine.
“This is tactical for us,” he said. “We understand that after Bakhmut, they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk. They could go to Sloviansk. It would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine in the Donetsk direction in the east of Ukraine. That’s why our guys are standing there.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speak to reporters in Kyiv on February 24, 2023. In inset, a Ukrainian soldier near Bakhmut on February 18, 2023. Zelensky in a new CNN clip released Tuesday warned that his troops withdrawing from Bakhmut would allow Russia easier access to the rest of Eastern Ukraine. Yan Dobronosov/Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images; John Moore/Getty Images
Russia is seeking to win the city in hopes of a rare victory following months of stagnation, despite initial hopes that Ukraine would fall in the early days of the war.
Both sides have put up an intense fight to hold the city, control of which has been viewed as more symbolic for Russia. Putin’s troops, who have fought alongside the mercenary Wagner Group, have made some gains in recent days, sparking speculation that the city could fall into Russian control.
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Monday, downplaying the possibility that it would be viewed as an “operational or strategic setback.”
Zelensky said the Russians need to “put their little flag on top” of the city to send a symbolic message to their people amid a lack of victories.
“It’s not a victory for them. It’s to mobilize their society in order to create this idea that they’re such a powerful army,” Zelensky said. “For us, it’s different.”
Still, there are signs that the combat is taking a toll on Russia, as well. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Tuesday that the battle will “severely degrade the Wagner Group’s best forces, depriving Russia of some of its most effective and most difficult-to-replace shock troops.”
Newsweek reached out to Ukraine’s Defense Ministry by email for comment.