Zelensky vows to not retreat from Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

A man in military fatigues looks skyward while crouched in a muddy trench
A Ukrainian soldier takes cover in a trench under Russian shelling on the front line close to Bakhmut, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on March 5, 2023.
(Libkos )

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed Monday to not retreat from Bakhmut as Russian forces encroached on the devastated eastern city they have sought to capture for six months at the cost of thousands of lives.

Less than a week ago, an advisor to Zelensky said the defenders might give up on Bakhmut and fall back to nearby positions.

But the president on Monday chaired a meeting in which top military brass “spoke in favor of continuing the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.” Later in his nightly video address, Zelensky reported that his advisors unanimously agreed to press on with the fight, “not to retreat” and to bolster Ukrainian defenses.


His top advisor, Mykhailo Podolyak, told the Associated Press that Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut have been grinding down enemy forces, reinforcing their positions and training tens of thousands of Ukrainian military personnel for a possible counteroffensive.

Intense Russian shelling targeted the city in the Donetsk region and nearby villages as Moscow waged a three-sided assault to try to finish off Bakhmut’s resistance.

The nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka came under heavy shelling that damaged cars and homes and sparked a fire. No casualties were immediately reported.

Police and volunteers evacuated people from Chasiv Yar and other front-line towns in an operation made difficult by the loss of bridges and constant artillery fire that has left barely a house standing.

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Russian forces have been unable to deliver a knockout blow that would allow them to seize Bakhmut. Analysts say that the city does not hold major strategic value and that its capture would be unlikely to serve as a turning point in the conflict.

The Russian push for Bakhmut reflects the Kremlin’s broader struggle to achieve battlefield momentum. Moscow’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, 2022, soon stalled, and Ukraine launched a largely successful counteroffensive. Over the bitterly cold winter months, the fighting largely has been deadlocked.


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The city’s importance has become mostly symbolic — for Russian President Vladimir Putin, prevailing there would finally deliver some good news from the battlefield, while for Kyiv the display of grit and defiance reinforces a message that Ukraine is holding on after a year of brutal attacks, justifying continued support from its Western allies.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III endorsed that view Monday, saying during a visit to Jordan that Bakhmut has “more of a symbolic value than … strategic and operational value.”

He added that Moscow is “continuing to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops” in Bakhmut, whereas Ukraine is patiently “building combat power” elsewhere with Western military support ahead of the launch of a possible spring offensive.

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Even so, some analysts questioned the wisdom of the Ukrainian defenders holding out much longer, with others suggesting a tactical withdrawal may already be underway.

Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the Center for a New American Security think tank in Arlington, Va., said that Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut has been effective because it has drained the Russian war effort, but that Kyiv should now look ahead.

“I think the tenacious defense of Bakhmut achieved a great deal, expending Russian manpower and ammunition,” Kofman tweeted late Sunday. “But strategies can reach points of diminishing returns, and given Ukraine is trying to husband resources for an offensive, it could impede the success of a more important operation.”


The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted that urban warfare favors the defender but considered that the smartest option now for Kyiv 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 institute said in an assessment published late Sunday.

The Bakhmut battle has also served to expose Russian military shortcomings and bitter divisions.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of the Wagner Group private military contractor that 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.

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On Monday, Prigozhin warned in a Russian social media post that the situation in Bakhmut “will turn out to be a ‘pie’: The filling is the parts of the Armed Forces of Ukraine surrounded by us (in the case, of course, if there is a complete encirclement of Bakhmut), and the shell is, in fact, the Wagner” Group.

Bakhmut has taken on almost mythic importance. It has become like Mariupol — the port city in the same province that Russia captured last year after an 82-day siege that saw determined Ukrainian fighters hold out, along with civilians, at a mammoth steel mill before eventually surrendering.


In Mariupol, Moscow has moved to cement its rule. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu toured some of the war-torn city’s rebuilt infrastructure — a newly built hospital, a rescue center and residential buildings — the Defense Ministry reported Monday.

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Meanwhile, Russian forces attacked central and eastern regions of Ukraine with Iranian-made Shahed drones, said an Ukrainian air force spokesman, Yurii Ihnat. Of 15 drones Russia launched, 13 were shot down, Ihnat said. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the attack caused damage.

Russia shot down three missiles over its Belgorod region, which borders Ukraine, Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said on the messaging app Telegram. Debris injured one person and damaged power lines and facades of residential buildings, he said. Gladkov did not specify whether the missiles were fired from Ukraine.

Ukraine’s chief prosecutor announced a criminal investigation into what appeared to be Russian troops’ execution of an unarmed Ukrainian prisoner of war. A video circulating on social media showed a uniformed Ukrainian soldier standing and smoking. The soldier recites Ukraine’s battle cry, “Glory to Ukraine!” then a volley of gunshots hits him, and he falls into a shallow hole dug into the ground. The AP could not verify the video’s authenticity.

Outrage over the video quickly sparked a flurry of social media posts, including by Zelensky, of “Glory to Ukraine!” In his nightly video address, Zelensky said: “I want us all together, in unity, to respond to his words: “Glory to the hero! Glory to heroes! Glory to Ukraine!” And we will find the killers.”

Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, reported thwarting an attempt to assassinate nationalist businessman Konstantin Malofeyev that was allegedly plotted by Ukrainian security services and the Russian Volunteer Corps that claims to be part of Ukraine’s armed forces. According to the FSB, Russian Volunteer Corps leader Denis Kapustin was the mastermind behind the plan to place a bomb under Malofeyev’s car.


Malofeyev is a media baron and owner of the ultraconservative Tsargrad TV who has supported Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine and has trumpeted Moscow’s invasion as a “holy war.” He has been sanctioned by the U.S. and last year was charged with trying to evade sanctions.

The Russian Volunteer Corps last week claimed responsibility for an attack on Russian villages on the border with Ukraine. The FSB said Monday that Kapustin organized and spearheaded the raid, which killed two civilians and wounded two others. The FSB’s allegations could not be independently verified. Ukrainian officials have not commented.