OUTSIDE BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) — Looking at overhead drone camera footage, Ukrainian battalion commander Oleg Shiryaev warned his men in nearby trenches that Russian forces were advancing at through a field to a patch of trees outside the town of Bakhmut.
The commander of the 228th Battalion of the 127th Territorial Defense Brigade in Kharkiv then ordered a mortar team to prepare. A target was locked. A mortar tube made a loud orange noise and an explosion carved a new crater in an already pockmarked hill.
“We are moving forward,” Shiryaev said after at least one drone image showed a downed Russian fighter. “We fight for every tree, every trench, every canoe.”
Russian forces declared victory in the eastern city last month after the longest and deadliest battle since they began their full-scale invasion of Ukraine 15 months ago. But Ukrainian defenders like Shiryaev are not retreating. Instead, they are keeping up the pressure and continuing the fight from positions on the western outskirts of Bakhmut.
The pushback gives commanders in Moscow another thing to think about ahead of a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive that appears to be taking shape.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Russia was trying to create a sense of calm around Bakhmut, but in fact artillery shelling still continues at levels similar to those at the height of the battle to take the city. The fight, she said, is moving into a new phase.
“The battle for the Bakhmut region has not stopped; it’s ongoing, it just takes different forms,” Maliar said, dressed in her signature fatigues in an interview with a military media center in Kyiv. Russian forces are now trying – but failing – to oust Ukrainian fighters from the “commanding heights” overlooking Bakhmut.
“We hold them very tightly,” she said.
From the Kremlin’s perspective, the area around Bakhmut is only part of the more than 1,000 kilometers (621 miles) front line that the Russian military must hold. This task could be made more difficult by the withdrawal of mercenaries from the private military contractor Wagner Group who helped take control of the city. They will be replaced by Russian soldiers.
For Ukrainian forces, recent work has been opportunistic – trying to wrest small gains from the enemy and taking strategic positions, including on two flanks to the northwest and southwest, where the 3rd Assault Brigade Ukrainian separate has been active, officials said.
Russia had seen the capture of Bakhmut as a partial fulfillment of its ambition to gain control of the eastern region of Donbass, Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Now his forces have been forced to regroup, rotate fighters and rearm just to hold the city. Wagner’s owner announced a withdrawal after acknowledging the loss of more than 20,000 of his men.
Maliar described the nine-month struggle against Wagner’s forces in almost existential terms: “If they had not been destroyed in the defense of Bakhmut, one can imagine that all those tens of thousands would have advanced deeper on the Ukrainian territory.
The fate of Bakhmut, which lies largely in ruins, has been overshadowed in recent days by near-night attacks on Kiev, a series of unclaimed drone strikes near Moscow and growing anticipation that the Ukrainian government will try to win back ground.
But the battle for the city could still have a lingering impact. Moscow made the most of its capture, epitomized by the triumphalism of the Russian media. Any slippage from Russia’s grip would be a political embarrassment for President Vladimir Putin.
Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses, a US research group, noted in a podcast this week that victory brings new challenges to hold Bakhmut.
With the withdrawal of Wagner’s fighters, Russian forces “are going to be increasingly fixated on Bakhmut…and will find it difficult to defend themselves,” Kofman told “War on the Rocks” in an interview published Tuesday.
“And so they may not hang on to Bakhmut, and all of this may end up being useless to them,” he added.
A Western official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Russian Airborne Forces were heavily involved in replacing departing Wagner troops – a step that “likely to upset” Airborne leaders, who see this duty as a further erosion of their “previously elite status”. ” in the army.
Ukrainian forces have been reclaiming shards of territory on the flanks — a few hundred meters (yards) a day — to solidify defensive lines and seek opportunities to retake some urban parts of the city, a Ukrainian analyst said.
“The target at Bakhmut is not Bakhmut itself, which has been turned into ruins,” military analyst Roman Svitan said by phone. The objective for the Ukrainians is to hold on to the western heights and maintain a defensive arc outside the city.
More broadly, Ukraine wants to weigh in on Russian forces and seize the initiative ahead of the counteroffensive – part of what military analysts call “shaping operations” to define combat environment conditions and place an enemy in a defensive and reactive posture.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east, said the strategic objective in the Bakhmut region was “to contain the enemy and destroy as many personnel and equipment as possible” while preventing a Russian breakthrough or an outflanking maneuver.
Analyst Mathieu Boulègue wondered if Bakhmut would have any lessons or significance for the coming war.
Military superiority matters, he said, but so does “information superiority” – the ability “to create subterfuge, to create an obfuscation of your strength, to be able to move in the shadows “.
Boulègue, consultant for the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House London think tank, said such tactics “could determine which side gains an advantage that surprises the other side and turns the tide of the war”.
Keaten reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Associated Press writers Hanna Arhirova and Illia Novikov in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.
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