Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has doubled down on defending Bakhmut despite earlier signals of a withdrawal from the eastern city that is almost surrounded by Russian troops.
In an overnight video address, Zelenskyy said he had met his top generals who had “unanimously” advised “do not withdraw but reinforce”.
It is unusual for the president to cite the advice of his top commanders. His intervention comes amid reports of concerns among western officials, analysts and some Ukrainian troops at the frontline about the merits of holding on to the city despite the costs. US defence secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that a retreat from Bakhmut should not be seen as an “operational or strategic setback”.
Zelenskyy said he had ordered General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, “to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut”.
“There is no part of Ukraine about which one can say that it can be abandoned,” Zelenskyy added.
The battle for the city, known among Ukrainian troops as “Fortress Bakhmut”, has lasted almost nine months, one of the most grinding stand-offs since Russian president Vladimir Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
The largely bombed-out city has been assailed by Russian troops from its east, north and south.
“The Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut continues to degrade forces on both sides,” the UK’s defence ministry said on Twitter on Tuesday.
Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, said that taking control of Bakhmut would allow his troops to “continue an offensive” into the Ukrainian defences, according to Interfax. He estimated that Ukrainian casualties grew 40 per cent in February to 11,000.
Ukraine’s general staff on Tuesday said 1,060 Russian soldiers had been killed along all front lines since February 24. The claims could not be independently verified.
Kyiv claimed that it had identified one of its soldiers from a video circulating on social media on Monday that appeared to show Russian troops executing him as a prisoner of war. The footage shows the soldier, unarmed and smoking a cigarette, being shot after he chanted: “Glory to Ukraine.”
An army spokesperson told the Financial Times that relatives had confirmed his identity but that an autopsy was not currently possible as his body remains in Russian-occupied territory.
The general staff in a statement on Tuesday identified him as Tymofiy Shadura from the 30th mechanised brigade. In a separate statement, the brigade said Shadura went missing last month near Bakhmut.
“The shooting of an unarmed prisoner is a cynical and brazen disregard for the norms of international humanitarian law and the customs of war,” the general staff added.
Capturing Bakhmut, one of the last of several major cities in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region not under Russian occupation, would give Putin his first major battlefield victory since his forces captured the nearby sister cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk early last summer.
Ukraine counter-attacked last autumn twice to retake areas in the north-east as well as the southern city of Kherson. But Russian forces still occupy eastern and southern regions, accounting for just under 20 per cent of its territory.
Austin’s comments about a Ukrainian retreat echoed suggestions by some western officials and experts that Kyiv should pull out to preserve its forces ahead of its own planned counter-offensive. That push is expected after the arrival this spring of fresh western weaponry, including modern tanks from Nato countries.
But Ukrainian officials and experts have said their continued defence of Bakhmut is eroding Russia’s firepower. They say Russian losses in the battle have far exceeded Ukraine’s. Zelenskyy’s national security chief Oleksiy Danilov on Friday said the casualties had been “one to seven in our favour”.
“We are destroying the occupier everywhere — wherever it yields results for Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said in his video address. “Bakhmut has yielded and is yielding one of the greatest results during this war.”