United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said the war-torn eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is symbolically important to Russia, rather than operationally, and its capture would not signal Moscow has regained momentum in its yearlong war effort.
Over the past week, fighting near Bakhmut has intensified, with Russian forces attacking from nearly all sides.
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“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin told reporters on Monday while visiting Jordan, adding that he would not predict if or when Bakhmut would be taken by Russian forces.
“The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” Austin added.
If Russia were to capture the city with a pre-war population of about 70,000, Moscow would laud its first major victory in a costly winter offensive, having called up hundreds of thousands of reservists last year.
However, on Monday, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, which is spearheading the longest battle of Moscow’s intervention in Ukraine, complained his forces still lack ammunition, blaming possible “betrayal”.
Kremlin-ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, whose recruits have been fighting for months to capture Bakhmut, has been entangled in a power struggle with the defence ministry and accused them of withholding supplies.
“For now, we are trying to figure out the reason: is it just ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal,” Prigozhin, referring to the absence of ammunition, said on his press service Telegram channel on Sunday.
“If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” Prigozhin said. “The situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests.”
‘Hell like’ situation
Meanwhile, Volodymyr Nazarenko, a commander of Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut, said that there had been no order to retreat and “the defence is holding” in grim conditions.
“The situation in Bakhmut and around it is very much hell-like, as it is on the entire eastern front,” Nazarenko said in a video posted on Telegram.
Ukraine’s military said late on Sunday Russian forces were attempting to advance on Bakhmut, shelling the city and nearby settlements of Ivanivske, Chasiv Yar, Kurdyumivka and Orikhovo-Vasylivka.
To the north, Russian troops advanced towards the town of Bilohorivka, just inside the Luhansk region, and shelled several settlements in the direction of Kupiansk and Lyman, the Ukrainian military said.
Further south, it said, Russian forces made preparations for an offensive in the Zaporizhia and Kherson regions.