Bakhmut battle allowing Ukraine to target key Russian forces, Zelenskyy aide says

Ukraine has decided to fight on in the ruined city of Bakhmut because the battle there is pinning down Russia's best units and degrading them ahead of a planned Ukrainian spring counter-offensive, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

Ukrainian decision to stay in Bakhmut fight is rooted in chance to tie up and target opponents

Ukrainian soldiers are seen on the move near the city of Bakhmut.
Ukrainian soldiers are seen on the move near Bakhmut on Friday. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

Ukraine has decided to fight on in the ruined city of Bakhmut because the battle there is pinning down Russia's best units and degrading them ahead of a planned Ukrainian spring counter-offensive, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.

The comments by Mykhailo Podolyak were the latest signal of a shift by Kyiv this week to continue the defence of the small eastern city, site of the war's bloodiest battle as Moscow tries to secure its first victory in more than half a year.

"Russia has changed tactics," Podolyak said in an interview published by Italy's La Stampa newspaper. "It has converged on Bakhmut with a large part of its trained military personnel, the remnants of its professional army, as well as the private companies."

"We, therefore, have two objectives: to reduce their capable personnel as much as possible, and to fix them in a few key wearisome battles, to disrupt their offensive and concentrate our resources elsewhere, for the spring counter-offensive. So, today Bakhmut is completely effective, even exceeding its key tasks."

A view from a helicopter gives a glimpse of a destroyed village in eastern Ukraine.
A Ukrainian helicopter flies on Friday over a destroyed village in Eastern Ukraine. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia has made Bakhmut the main target of a winter offensive involving hundreds of thousands of reservists and mercenaries. It has captured the eastern part of the city and the outskirts to the north and south, but has so far failed to close a ring around Ukrainian defenders.

Just west of Bakhmut, shelling and missile strikes hit the Ukrainian-held city of Kostiantynivka on Friday. The regional prosecutor's office said eight people were injured and more than a dozen homes were damaged or destroyed in the attacks.

Associated Press journalists in the city saw at least four injured people taken to a local hospital. Police said Russian forces attacked the town with S-300 missiles and cluster munitions.

Ukrainians stick with Bakhmut

Kyiv, which had seemed at the start of March to be planning to withdraw westward, announced this week that its generals had decided to reinforce Bakhmut and fight on.

Ukrainian soldiers load rockets on a Mil Mi-8 helicopter in eastern Ukraine on March 10, 2023.
Ukrainian soldiers load rockets onto a helicopter in Eastern Ukraine on Friday. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said that, as Russia pressed its offensive, "our soldiers are doing everything possible to prevent the enemy implementing their plans."

Russia's advances have appeared to slow amid highly public complaints from Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner private militia leading Russia's assault, that the military command was failing to provide his men with enough ammunition.

Prigozhin on Friday thanked the Russian government publicly for a "heroic" increase in output — but in the same audio message said he was "worried about ammunition and shell shortages not only for Wagner ... but for all units of the Russian army."

Moscow says capturing Bakhmut would punch a hole in Ukrainian defences and be a step toward seizing all of Ukraine's Donbas industrial region, a major target.

Ukrainian soldiers, travelling via tank, move along a road going from Chasiv Yar to Bakhmut.
Ukrainian soldiers are seen moving along a road going from the town of Chasiv Yar toward Bakhmut on Thursday. (Sergey Shestak/AFP/Getty Images)

Trench warfare, described by both sides as a meat grinder, has claimed a huge toll. But Kyiv's decision to stay and fight suggests it believes Russia's losses far exceed its own.

After making gains throughout the second half of 2022, Ukrainian forces have been mostly on the defensive since mid-November, while Russia has gone on the attack with troops called up in its first mobilization since the Second World War.

Kyiv waiting on weapons

But apart from around Bakhmut, the Russian winter offensive has largely failed. Meanwhile, Kyiv is awaiting a surge in Western military aid expected in coming months for an offensive once muddy ground dries in late spring.

A local resident in Vovchans'k, Ukraine, looks at a piece of a missile left on the ground after a Russian bombing.
A local resident looks at a missile fragment after a Russian bombing in Vovchans'k, in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, on Thursday. (Sergey Bobok/AFP/Getty Images)

Kyiv and the West also saw signs of exhaustion in Russia's latest mass salvo of missile strikes on Ukrainian targets.

Russia fired hundreds of millions of dollars worth of missiles across Ukraine on Thursday, including an unprecedented six of its hypersonic kinzhal missiles, touted as a superweapon for which NATO has no answer. It is only believed to possess a few dozen kinzhals.

The barrage killed civilians, including a family buried under rubble while they slept in their homes near Lviv, 700 kilometres from the battlefield. But otherwise it appeared to have achieved little, with damaged power systems mostly quickly restored.

The worst damage appears to have been in the eastern city of Kharkiv, where the regional governor said around 450,000 people were still without power on Friday evening.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think-tank, said in an assessment that "these missile strikes will not undermine Ukraine's will or improve Russia's positions on the front lines."

It had been three weeks since the last similar Russian attack, the longest lull since such strikes began in October. Previously, Moscow had been unleashing such attacks roughly every week, challenging Ukraine's ability to repair infrastructure before the next onslaught.

Britain's ministry of defence said on Friday the reason for the longer lull was probably that Moscow was running out of missiles and now had to wait between barrages for its factories to produce them.

An elderly woman looks on as Ukrainian soldiers prepare to move to the front line near the city of Bakhmut.
An elderly woman looks on as Ukrainian soldiers prepare to move toward Bakhmut earlier this week. (Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images)

"The interval between waves of strikes is probably growing because Russia now needs to stockpile a critical mass of newly produced missiles directly from industry before it can resource a strike big enough to credibly overwhelm Ukrainian air defences," it said.

Ukrainian resistance may also be having a wider effect on Russia's economy.

Gas traders said tankers loaded with Russian liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) were unable to get out into the Black Sea because it was not considered safe for them to pass under the Crimean Bridge, a road link across the mouth of the Azov Sea badly damaged in October by a blast that Russia blamed on Ukraine.

A Ukrainian tank is seen on the move near the frontline town of Bakhmut, Ukraine.
Ukrainian service members ride a tank near the front-line town of Bakhmut, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, on Tuesday. (Serhii Nuzhnenko/Radio Liberty/Radio Free Europe/Reuters)

With files from The Associated Press