OUTSIDE BAKHMUT, Ukraine –
Tracking the drone’s camera overhead, Ukrainian battalion commander Oleg Shiryaev warned his men in nearby trenches that Russian forces were advancing through a field toward a grove of trees outside. Bakhmut city.
The commander of the 225th Battalion of the 127th Kharkiv Territorial Defense Brigade then ordered a mortar squad to be ready. One target is locked. A mortar tube released a loud orange explosion, and an explosion created a new crater on an already empty hillside.
“We are moving forward,” Shiryaev said after at least one drone image showed a downed Russian fighter jet. “We fight for every tree, every trench, every tunnel.”
Russian forces declared victory in the eastern city last month after the longest, bloodiest battle since their all-out invasion of Ukraine began 15 months ago. But defenders of Ukraine like Shiryaev did not retreat. Instead, they are maintaining the pressure and continuing the fight from positions on the western edge of Bakhmut.
The pushback gives commanders in Moscow another thing to think about as a much-anticipated Ukrainian counterattack appears to be brewing.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Russia had sought to create a peaceful impression around Bakhmut, but in reality shelling continued to the same extent as at the height of the battle for the city. . The war is evolving into a new phase, she said.
“The battle for the Bakhmut region hasn’t stopped; it’s still going on, just in different forms,” Maliar, in his signature tired outfit, said in an interview from a media outlet. military media center in Kiev. Russian forces are now trying – but failing – to dislodge the Ukrainian fighters from the “dominant heights” overlooking Bakhmut.
“We’re holding them very firmly,” she said.
From the Kremlin’s point of view, the area around Bakhmut is only part of a more than 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) front line that the Russian army must hold. That task may have been made more difficult by the withdrawal of mercenaries from the private military contractor Wagner Group, who helped control the city. They will be replaced by Russian soldiers.
For Ukrainian forces, recent work has been opportunistic – trying to extract small gains from the enemy and occupy strategic positions, especially from the flanks to the northwest and southwest, where Ukraine’s 3rd separate assault brigade is active, officials said.
Russia envisioned capturing Bakhmut as part of fulfilling its ambition to gain control of the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Now its forces are forced to regroup, rotate warriors and rearm just to hold the city. Wagner’s owner announced the withdrawal of his troops after admitting to having lost more than 20,000 of his men.
Maliar described the nine-month war against Wagner’s forces in an almost existential way: “If they had not been destroyed in the course of defending Bakhmut, one could imagine that all these tens of thousands of people were. will go deeper into Ukrainian territory.”
Bakhmut’s fate, largely in ruins, has been overshadowed in recent days by near-nightly attacks on Kyiv, a series of drone strikes near Moscow and projected There is growing speculation that the Ukrainian government will try to regain the territory.
But the battle for the city could still have a lasting impact. Moscow has made the most of its seizure, which is portrayed by triumphalism in the Russian media. Any slide in Russia’s grip would be a political embarrassment for President Vladimir Putin.
Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analysis, a US research group, noted in a podcast this week that the victory brings new challenges in keeping Bakhmut.
With the Wagner fighters retreating, Russian forces “will become increasingly focused on Bakhmut… and will find it difficult to defend,” Kofman told “War on the Rocks” in an interview published on Tuesday.
“And so they might not be able to keep Bakhmut, and the whole thing might not be in their favor later on,” he added.
An unnamed Western official said Russia’s airborne forces were heavily involved in replacing the departing Wagner troops – a move that was “potentially offensive” to the leadership. airborne forces, who saw the mission as further erosion of their “previous elite”. status” in the army.
A Ukrainian analyst says Ukrainian forces have been reclaiming pieces of territory on either side – several hundred meters per day – to fortify defenses and look for opportunities to retake some of the city’s urban areas. city.
“The target in Bakhmut is not Bakhmut itself, which has been reduced to rubble,” military analyst Roman Svitan said by phone. The Ukrainian goal was to hold on to the western heights and maintain a defensive arc outside the city.
More broadly, Ukraine wants to crush Russian forces and take the initiative in the face of a counter-offensive – part of what military analysts call “shaping operations” aimed at establishing the conditions of the environment. battle arena and put the enemy on the defensive, react.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east, said the strategic goal in the Bakhmut region is to “contain the enemy and destroy as much manpower and equipment as possible” while preventing a breakthrough. Russian destruction or maneuvering.
Analyst Mathieu Boulegue questions whether Bakhmut has learned any lessons or importance for the battle ahead.
Military superiority is important, he said, but so is “information superiority” – the ability to “create submission, create concealment of your force, to be able to move in the dark.”
Boulegue, a consultant for the Russia and Eurasian program at the Chatham House consultancy in London, said those tactics “can determine which side gains an advantage, taking the other by surprise and turning it around.” the outcome of the war.”
Jamey Keaten reports from Kiev, Ukraine. Hanna Arhirova and Illia Novikov in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia and Jill Lawless in London, contributed to this report.