Russian forces have attacked Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine from three directions, the Ukrainian military said on Sunday, but have yet to complete an encirclement of the battered city that has become the focal point of Moscow’s latest offensive.
The monthslong battle for Bakhmut — Russia’s longest-running sustained assault since the invasion began last year — has decimated the city in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian soldiers have held out there for months, even as Russian forces have gradually captured surrounding territory, nearly cutting off the city.
Russian forces killed two civilians in Bakhmut on Saturday, the head of Ukraine’s regional military administration in Donetsk, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Sunday in a post on the Telegram social messaging app. Seven civilians were wounded in the region, Mr. Kyrylenko said.
Bakhmut had a population of about 70,000 before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February, but the Ukrainian authorities say that only a few thousand civilians remain there. They have been working to evacuate those that have stayed, though the task has become harder as the roads out have either been cut or come under increasing artillery fire.
Moscow has held ground in the Donetsk region east of Bakhmut since 2014, and has consolidated its control of that territory over the past year. But Russian forces have for months also been attacking the city from the south and the north, as they try to encircle the Ukrainians fighters defending it. Russia has rushed large numbers of troops to the front lines, including many newly mobilized, ill-trained recruits, giving Ukraine the opportunity to inflict thousands of casualties — though at a high cost to its own fighters.
The State of the War
- Military Support: Amid mounting concerns that China could move to supply weapons to Moscow, President Biden and Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany vowed to keep Western support intact during a visit by the German leader to Washington.
- An Unexpected Meeting: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia spoke during a Group of 20 summit, their first face-to-face meeting since Moscow’s invasion.
- Bakhmut: Russia’s offensive to take the city — the country’s longest-running sustained assault in the war — is being decided by a yard-by-yard battle for the roads that are the vital lifelines of supply for Ukrainian fighters.
- On Emergency Footing: An armed group claiming to fight for Ukraine said it briefly took control of a border town in the Bryansk region of Russia, prompting President Vladimir V. Putin to cancel a trip and convene his security council over a rare known case of a raid inside his country.
Military experts say that Russia’s offensive — which aims to secure the whole of the Donbas region, made up of Donetsk and neighboring Luhansk — is being fought at five or six points along a frontline that stretches around 100 miles from the town of Kreminna in Luhansk to Vuhledar in Donetsk, where Moscow suffered heavy losses in a tank battle in recent weeks.
Bakhmut has become the epicenter of Moscow’s renewed offensive in the east, and, while there is little evidence of Russian gains elsewhere, there have been increasing signs in recent weeks that Moscow could secure Bakhmut.
As both sides suffered grievous losses, the battle for Bakhmut has taken on outsize importance. Last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine vowed to defend Bakhmut for as long as possible, calling it a “fortress.” But in recent days, Ukrainian officials have been preparing the public for the possibility of a retreat.
Mick Ryan, a military analyst and retired Australian Army major general who is a fellow at the Lowy Institute, a think tank based in Sydney, wrote on Sunday that Russian forces, despite taking a very large number of casualties had “slowly but surely begun to take ground in and around Bakhmut.” He said in a post on Substack that “Russia is strangling (but not yet stopping) the Ukrainian capacity to defend the city.”
That sentiment was echoed by the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based research group. It said that Russian forces “will not likely be able to encircle the city soon,” but that by closing in on the roads that are the vital lifelines of supply for Ukrainian fighters, they could force Kyiv’s forces to abandon their defensive positions and withdraw.
If Russia does eventually take control of Bakhmut, it would be the culmination of one the longest and bloodiest battles of the war, but questions would remain about Russia’s ability to sustain its offensive and gain further ground in eastern Ukraine.
“The reality is that if the Russians do capture Bakhmut, they are seizing rubble,” Gen. Ryan said. “It is a town with minimal strategic importance, with almost no remaining infrastructure to support an occupying force. That the Russians have invested so much in its capture speaks volumes about their poor strategy in this war.”