The battle for Bakhmut, a city in the eastern region of Ukraine, has been raging on for the past six months as Russian forces continue their siege. Despite the challenges and loss of life, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made it clear that his country will not back down and will continue to defend the city at all costs.
At a recent meeting with top military brass, Zelenskyy was advised to retreat from the city and fall back to nearby positions. However, the President was firm in his decision to press on with the fight, “not to retreat” and to bolster Ukrainian defenses. According to his top adviser, Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukrainian forces have been grinding down enemy forces, reinforcing their positions, and training tens of thousands of Ukrainian military personnel for a possible counteroffensive.
Despite Ukrainian forces’ efforts, Russian forces have been able to encroach on the city and subject it to intense shelling. The nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka have also come under heavy fire, resulting in damaged cars and homes and sparking a fire. In response, police and volunteers have been working to evacuate people from these front-line towns, a challenging operation made difficult by the loss of bridges and constant artillery fire that has left barely a house standing.
Although the city does not hold major strategic value, it has become a symbol of the conflict, with both sides seeking to gain a propaganda victory from its capture or defense. For Russian President Vladimir Putin, prevailing there would finally deliver some good news from the front. For Kyiv, the display of grit and defiance underscores the message that Ukraine is holding on after a year of brutal attacks, justifying continued support from its Western allies.
However, analysts question the wisdom of ordering Ukrainian defenders to hold out much longer, with some suggesting that a tactical withdrawal may already be underway. Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the CAN think tank in Arlington, Virginia, believes that Kyiv should now look ahead, stating that “given Ukraine is trying to husband resources for an offensive, [holding out in Bakhmut] could impede the success of a more important operation.”
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, agrees, stating that Kyiv’s smartest option now may be to withdraw to positions that are easier to defend. “Ukrainian forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut all at once and may pursue a gradual fighting withdrawal to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare,” the ISW said in an assessment published late Sunday.
The battle for Bakhmut has exposed Russian military shortcomings and bitter divisions. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group military company that has spearheaded the Bakhmut offensive, has been at loggerheads with the Russian Defense Ministry and repeatedly accused it of failing to provide his forces with ammunition.
Despite the challenges and difficulties, Ukrainian forces continue to hold their ground and stand firm in their determination to defend Bakhmut. While the city’s strategic value may be minimal, its symbolic importance cannot be underestimated. As the conflict continues to rage on, both sides will undoubtedly continue to seek out ways to gain the upper hand and claim victory in this ongoing struggle.