© Reuters. A Ukrainian serviceman stands near a mortar on a front line, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near the front line city of Bakhmut, Ukraine March 6, 2023. REUTERS/Anna Kudriavtseva
By Oleksandr Kozhukhar
KYIV (Reuters) -Ukraine’s top generals have vowed to keep defending the eastern city of Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said, as Russian forces fought to tighten their siege and secure their first major battlefield gain in more than six months.
Russian forces have been trying to take Bakhmut for months and say capturing it would be a step towards its objective of seizing all of the surrounding Donbas region. But Western strategists say it would be more of a pyrrhic victory given the time taken and casualties suffered.
Ukrainian troops have been reinforcing positions west of the city in apparent preparation for a possible withdrawal but appear not to have decided to pull out.
Zelenskiy said he discussed Bakhmut with top commanders and they had said “not to withdraw” and instead to strengthen the city’s defences.
“The command unanimously supported this position. There were no other positions. I told the commander in chief to find the appropriate forces to help our guys in Bakhmut,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on Monday.
The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force, which has led the Bakhmut assault, said on Monday he needed the regular army to supply him with more ammunition if he was to win the battle.
The appeal from Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin underlines his deepening rift with the Russian defence ministry, which he has accused of deliberately starving his men of ammunition, an accusation the ministry has rejected.
“I’m knocking on all doors and sounding the alarm about ammunition and reinforcements, as well as the need to cover our flanks,” he said in a statement.
“If everyone is coordinated, without ambition, screw-ups and tantrums, and carries out this work, then we will block the armed forces of Ukraine. If not, then everyone will be screwed.”
There was no response from the Russian Ministry of Defence.
The Ukrainian military command on Tuesday reported a record-high 1,600 Russians killed over the previous 24 hours, taking its tally of Russian soldiers killed to 154,830.
The data could not be independently verified and the command gave no details of Ukrainian casualties.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has broadened a request for cluster bombs from the U.S. to include a weapon that it wants to cannibalize for the bomblets they contain to drop on Russian forces from drones, according to two U.S. lawmakers.
Cluster bombs are widely denounced by humanitarian groups for the toll their bomblets take on civilians, sometimes years after the war in which the munitions were used has ended.
The U.S. and its allies have imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia and sent billions of dollars in security assistance to Ukraine.
Russia’s ally China, meanwhile, renewed a call for dialogue, saying sanctions and pressure would not end the war.
“The process of peace talks should begin as soon as possible, and the legitimate security concerns of all parties should be respected,” China’s foreign minister Qin Gang said on the sidelines of a parliament meeting in Beijing.
Qin said an invisible hand was pushing for escalation and that threat of sanctions against China if it provided weapons to Russia was “absolutely unacceptable” as it “has not provided weapons to either side”.
China has declined to identify Russia as the aggressor in the conflict.
‘GRADUAL FIGHTING WITHDRAWAL’
On the battlefield, Ukrainian soldiers had repelled more than 140 Russian attacks over the past day, the Ukrainian military said on Tuesday.
“The enemy, despite significant losses, continues to storm the city of Bakhmut and its surroundings,” it said.
Russian forces trying to cut off the Ukrainian defenders launched 37 attacks near the village of Dubovo-Vasylivka alone, just to the northwest of Bakhmut, the military said.
Reuters could not verify battlefield reports.
Roman Svitan, a Ukrainian army colonel in the reserves, said in comments to Espreso TV that Bakhmut had to be held to prevent advances towards Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Druzhkivka, towns further west in Donetsk.
But some say a gradual withdrawal may be prudent.
Ukraine may “pursue a gradual fighting withdrawal to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare”, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in an assessment.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Bakhmut was more of symbolic than operational importance and its fall would not “necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight”.
Russia’s offensive has produced no notable gains, failing to seize ground in Luhansk province further north and taking heavy losses, in particular around Vuhledar to the south.
The administration in the Kherson region, also in the south, said early on Tuesday that Russian forces had attacked 65 times over the past 24 hours and four people were wounded.
Russia initially described its Feb. 24, 2022, invasion as a “special military operation” to “denazify” and demilitarise Ukraine, but now increasingly casts it as a fight against the aggression of the “collective West”.
Kyiv and the West say it is a baseless pretext for an illegal land-grab.