Zelenskyy opposes calls to leave Bakhmut – POLITICO

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Doubts are growing over the wisdom of holding the shattered frontline town of Bakhmut against relentless Russian assault, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy digs in and insists his top commanders are united in maintaining an attritional defense that has dragged on for decades. month.

Fighting around Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region escalated dramatically late last year, with Zelenskyy blaming the Russians for throwing men – many of them convicts recruited by the Wagner mercenary group – into a almost certain death in “meat waves”. Now the bloodiest battle of the war, Bakhmut offers a vision of the conflict close to the First World War, with flooded trenches and landscapes ravaged by artillery fire.

In recent weeks, as Ukrainian forces have been nearly surrounded in a salient, running out of shells and facing mounting casualties, there has been growing speculation both in Ukraine and abroad. that the time has come to retreat to another defensive line – an entrenchment that is not widely seen as a massive military setback, even if Russia would claim a symbolic victory.

In an address Wednesday evening, however, Zelenskyy explained that he remained in favor of an abrupt exit at Bakhmut.

“There was a clear position of the entire general staff: to reinforce this sector and inflict maximum damage on the occupier,” Zelenskyy said in a video address after meeting with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valeriy. Zaluzhnyy and other senior generals to discuss a battle. this is causing growing anxiety among Ukraine’s allies and drawing criticism from some Western military analysts.

“All members expressed a common position regarding the continued detention and defense of the city,” Zelenskyy said.

This is the second time in as many weeks that the Ukrainian president has cited the support of his top commanders. Ten days ago, Zelenskyy’s office issued a statement also stressing that Zaluzhnyy and Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, agreed with his decision to stand firm in Bakhmut.

The long-standing logic of the Ukrainian armed forces is that Russia suffered disproportionate casualties, allowing forces in Kiev to crush the invaders, ahead of an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive shortly in the spring.

City of glass, brick and debris

Criticism has mounted among some within Ukrainian ranks – and among Western allies – over the continuing battle for nearly nine months. The concern was first muted and voiced behind the scenes, but is now spilling out into the open.

On social media, some Ukrainian soldiers have expressed bitterness at their fate, although they say they will do their duty and hold as ordered. “Bakhmut is a city of glass, bricks and debris, crackling underfoot like the fate of the people who fought here,” tweeted one.

A lieutenant on Facebook noted: “There is a catastrophic shortage of shells.” He said the Russians were well entrenched and it took five to seven rounds to hit an enemy position. He complained about the equipment problems, saying: “Improvements – improvements have already been promised, because everyone with a mouth makes promises”. But he warned that his remarks should not be taken as a plea for a retreat. “WE WILL FILL OUR DUTY TO THE END, WHATEVER IT IS!” he concludes sadly.

Iryna Rybakova, press officer of the Ukrainian 93rd brigade, also gave insight into the risks doctors face in the city. “These people who come and go to Bakhmut on business are taking an incredible risk. Everything is difficult, she tweeted.

A Ukrainian soldier gives food and water to an elderly woman in the city of Bakhmut | Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

The key strategic question is whether Zelenskyy is stubborn and whether the fight has become more of a test of will than a tactically necessary engagement that will bleed Russian forces before the big counterattack from Ukraine.

“Traveling to the front lines, you hear a lot of grumbling where people are unsure if the reason they’re holding Bakhmut is because it’s politically important” as opposed to tactically significant, according to Michael Kofman, a US military analyst and Director of the Russian Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analysis.

Kofman, who traveled to Bakhmut to observe the fierce battle first-hand, told the War on the Rocks podcast that while the battle paid off for Ukrainians a few months ago, allowing him to maintain a rate mortality high, there is now a decrease returns to continue to engage.

“What is happening in the fight now is that the attrition exchange rate is favorable to Ukraine, but it is not as favorable as before. The losses on the Ukrainian side are quite significant and require regularly a significant number of replacements,” he said.

The Ukrainians acknowledged that they had also suffered heavy losses at Bakhmut, as Russia moved closer and closer to encirclement. They claim, however, that the Russians lose seven soldiers for every Ukrainian life lost, while NATO military officials put the death rate at more than five to one. But Kofman and other military analysts are skeptical, saying both sides now suffer roughly the same casualty rate.

“I hope the Ukrainian command really, really, really knows what they are doing in Bakhmut,” tweeted Kyiv Independent defense reporter Illia Ponomarenko.

Position change

Last week, Zelenskyy received backing from retired US generals David Petraeus and Mark Hertling for his decision to remain engaged at Bakhmut, on the grounds that the battle was causing a much higher Russian casualty rate. “I think right now using Bakhmut to allow the Russians to impale themselves on it is the right course of action, given the extraordinary casualties the Russians are taking,” said the retired general and former director of the CIA Petraeus at POLITICO.

But in the past two weeks the situation has changed, said Rob Lee, a former US Navy officer and now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the death rate is no longer a valid reason to stay engaged. “Bakhmut is no longer a good place to attack Russian forces,” he tweeted. Lee says Ukrainian casualties have increased since Russian forces, including Wagner mercenaries as well as elite Russian airborne troops, pushed north from the city in late February.

The Russians are determined to secure a victory at Bakhmut, which lies just 10 km southwest of the mining town of Soledar, which was overrun two months ago after the Wagner Group also sacrificed thousands of soldiers there. his untrained fighters.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has repeatedly hinted that he sees no tactical military reason to defend Bakhmut, saying the eastern Ukrainian town is of more symbolic importance than operational, and that its fall would not mean that Moscow had regained the initiative in the war.

Ukrainian generals have pushed back against such remarks, saying there is a tactical reason to defend the city. Zaluzhnyy said on his Telegram channel: “This is the key to the stability of the defense of the entire front.”

Volodymyr Zelensky and Sanna Marin attend a memorial service for Dmytro Kotsiubailo, a Ukrainian soldier killed in Bakhmut | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

Midweek, The Washington Post reported that US officials had been urging Ukrainians since late January to withdraw from Bakhmut, fearing that their own troop depletion could impact Kiev’s planned spring offensive. Ukrainian officials say there is no risk of impact on the offensive as the troops to be deployed are not fighting in Bakhmut.

This prompted some Ukrainian troops to complain that kyiv was sacrificing poorly trained reservists to Bakhmut, using them as expendables in the same way the Russians did with Wagner’s conscripts. A commander of the 46th Brigade – with the call sign Kupol – told the newspaper that inexperienced recruits were being used to fill the casualties. He has now been discharged, infuriating his soldiers, who have praised him.

Kofman fears that the Ukrainians are exploiting their military forces in Bakhmut. Located in a punch bowl, the city is not easy to defend, he noted. “Ukraine is a dynamic army” and it is good when it is able “to lead a mobile defense”. He added: “Fixed entrenchments, trying to concentrate units there, putting people one after another in positions that have already been hit by artillery doesn’t really get a lot of benefit from the Ukraine.”

“They mounted a tenacious defense. I don’t think the battle is as favorable as it is portrayed publicly, but more importantly I think they run a bit of a risk of being surrounded there,” he added.

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