Firefighters put out a fire at a destroyed gas distribution point in a residential neighborhood after a Russian attack, Monday, March 6, 2023, in Kostiantynivka, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)
CHASIV YAR, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed Monday not to withdraw from Bakhmut as Russian forces closed in on the devastated eastern city, which they have been trying to capture for six months at a cost of thousands of lives.
Less than a week ago, a Zelenskyy adviser said the defenders could cede the city and fall back to nearby positions.
But Zelenskyy chaired a meeting on Monday in which military commanders “expressed themselves in favor of maintaining the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.” Hours later, during his late-night video address, the president reported that his advisers unanimously agreed to continue the fighting, “not to retreat” and to bolster Ukraine’s defenses.
His top adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, told The Associated Press that Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut have been wearing down enemy forces, reinforcing their positions and training tens of thousands of Ukrainian military elements for a possible counteroffensive.
Russia launched heavy artillery attacks on the city in the Donetsk region and nearby towns, part of a three-pronged offensive to try to end Bakhmut resistance.
The nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka came under heavy attack, damaging vehicles and residences and starting a fire. So far no victims have been reported.
Police and volunteers evacuated the population of Chasiv Yar and other towns located on the battlefront in an operation that was complicated by the loss of bridges and the constant artillery attacks, which have destroyed practically all the houses in the area.
The Russian forces have not been able to deliver a definitive blow that allows them to capture Bakhmut. Analysts say the city is not of great strategic value and its fall is unlikely to result in a turning point in the conflict.
The Russian offensive for Bakhmut reflects the Kremlin’s broader problems in gaining some momentum on the battlefield. The invasion launched by Moscow on February 24, 2022 quickly stalled, and Ukraine launched a largely successful counteroffensive. During the harsh winter months the fighting has been virtually paralyzed.
The importance of the city has become symbolic. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, a triumph in Bakhmut would finally bring good news from the front. For Kiev, the display of guts and bravery underscores the message that Ukraine is still standing after a year of brutal attacks, justifying continued support from its Western allies.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin backed that stance on Monday, saying during a visit to Jordan that Bakhmut has “more symbolic than strategic and operational value.”
He added that Moscow continues to “rely on many poorly trained and ill-equipped soldiers” in Bakhmut, while Ukraine patiently bolsters “combat power” elsewhere with Western military support ahead of a possible spring offensive.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a shell at Russian positions near Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, March 5, 2023. (AP Photo/Libkos)
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