KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian troops may withdraw from the key stronghold of Bakhmut, an adviser to Ukraine’s president said Wednesday in remarks suggesting Russia could take over the city that has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. .
Kremlin forces have launched a bloody, months-long assault to capture Bakhmut, a city of salt and gypsum mines in eastern Ukraine turned into a ghost town.
“Our military will obviously consider all options. So far, they have held the city, but if necessary, they will withdraw strategically,” Alexander Rodnyansky, economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told CNN. “We’re not going to sacrifice all of our people for nothing.”
The battle for Bakhmut embodied Ukraine’s resolve as the city’s defenders resisted relentless shelling and Russian troops suffered heavy casualties.
Bakhmut is located in Donetsk province, one of four that Russia illegally annexed last fall, but which Moscow controls only half. To capture the other half, Russian forces must pass through Bakhmut, the only access route to larger Ukrainian-controlled cities since Ukrainian troops recaptured Izium in Kharkiv province in September.
Analysts say the fall of Bakhmut will be a blow to Ukraine and give Russia a tactical advantage, but will not be decisive for the outcome of the war.
Rodnyansky noted that Russia was using the best armies of the Wagner Group to try to lay siege to the city. The private military company known for its brutal tactics is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rogue millionaire with longstanding connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin said on Wednesday that he saw no sign of Ukraine withdrawing and that Kyiv was in fact consolidating his positions.
“The Ukrainian army is deploying more troops and is doing what it can to keep control of the city,” Prigozhin said. “Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are resisting fiercely and the fighting is getting more bloody.”
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said earlier this week that reinforcements had been sent to Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told the AP news agency that reinforcements may have been sent “to buy time” to reinforce Ukraine’s firing lines on a hill at Chasiv Yar, 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) away. miles) west of Bakhmut.
Zhdanov said the possible withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from Bakhmut “will not affect the course of the war in any way” because of the firing positions in Chasiv Yar.
Zhdanov said Bakhmut is now partially surrounded and all roads, including the main supply route, are under Russian fire control. The city lies in ruins and “no longer has any strategic or operational significance”.
“In Bakhmut, the Russians have lost so many forces – soldiers and equipment – that the city has fulfilled its function,” said Zhdanov.
Recent drone footage shows the scale of devastation in the city, and Zelenskyy has described it as “destroyed”.
Since invading Ukraine a year ago, Russia has bombarded many of the cities and towns it wants to occupy. It also targeted Ukraine’s electricity supply with pre-winter missile attacks in an apparent attempt to weaken people’s morale.
While Western analysts have warned that warmer weather could give Moscow an opportunity to extend an offensive, Ukrainian officials are still celebrating the traditional first Wednesday of the season. spring.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced that his country was free of Putin’s “winter terror”.
“We survived the toughest winter in our history,” Kuleba wrote on Facebook.
Analysts predict the war could turn into a protracted conflict and Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Kariņs said that would require a response from Kyiv’s Western allies.
“This could happen, for many years to come, when we will have to reframe our military, our military industry, to be able to take on a much bigger challenge,” Karins said later. talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz .
Meanwhile, one of Zelenskyy’s top advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, on Wednesday denied that Ukraine had used drones to attack Russian territory following Russia’s official statement that Ukraine had targeted spending on infrastructure deep inside Russia.
“Ukraine does not attack the territory of the Russian Federation. Ukraine is waging a defensive war with the aim of liberating all its territories,” Podolyak wrote on Twitter, alluding to the targeting of Russian infrastructure as a result of “attacks”. internal public”.
Ukraine’s Western allies have discouraged Ukraine from hitting targets in Russia to avoid escalation, and Podolyak’s statement may reflect Kiev’s attempt to maintain a level of denial in the face of those concerns. of the West.
In the past, Ukrainian officials have not claimed responsibility for attacks in Russia, but stressed that Ukraine reserves the right to strike any target on Russian territory in response to its aggression.
Asked about Podolyak’s denial, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We don’t believe it.”
Images of the drone that crashed near the village of Gubastovo, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Moscow, show it to be a small Ukrainian-made model with a reported range of up to 800 kilometers ( nearly 500 miles), but no capacity. carry a lot of explosives.
The Russian Defense Ministry said on Wednesday that it had prevented a major drone strike on Crimea. According to Russian state media, air defenses shot down six drones, while electronic warfare systems disabled four others.
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s presidential office reported that at least nine civilians were killed and 12 others injured.
Three people, including a 1-year-old boy, were injured in Russian shelling in the southern Ukrainian province of Kherson on Wednesday, regional officials said.
Fierce fighting also continues in Donetsk province, with Bakhmut, the cities of Avdiivka and Vuhledar, and 17 towns and villages, under heavy Russian shelling.
Yuras Karmanau of Tallinn, Estonia contributed to this report.
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