The battle for Bakhmut is coming to a head with intense fighting that has left Ukrainian troops vulnerable to Russian attacks, British defense officials have said.
The assessment comes as a military expert said news week that Ukraine may be preparing to withdraw from the city in the Donetsk region after tying down Russian troops in the non-strategic area.
On Saturday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense (MoD) said Ukraine’s defense of the city, which has been heavily contested since August, is “under increasing pressure”.
Regular Russian army troops and fighters from the Wagner mercenary group have pushed further into the northern suburbs of Bakhmut, which is now a Ukrainian-held salient “vulnerable to Russian attacks on three sides,” the Defense Ministry said.
The update states that Ukraine has reinforced the area with elite forces and has destroyed two key bridges in the past 36 hours. One of them was a vital line connecting Bakhmut to the final main supply route to the city of Chasiv Yar.
“Ukrainian-held supply routes out of the city are becoming increasingly restricted,” added the defense update, which followed a separate assessment by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) that the destruction of the bridges could be a prelude to a Ukrainian retreat.
“Ukrainian forces appear to be creating conditions for a controlled withdrawal from parts of Bakhmut,” ISW said on Friday. The DC think tank said the destruction of bridges likely indicated Ukrainian troops wanted to restrict Russian movement in east Bakhmut and limit Russian escape routes west.
“It is clear that the Ukrainians are creating the conditions to potentially pull out of what I believe has been a hugely successful ‘fixing’ operation over the past seven months,” said Philip Ingram, a former British military intelligence officer news week. This fixation operation had caused the massive attrition of Russian forces and concentrated them in an area of little strategic value.
“The Ukrainians have slowly traded space for time,” Ingram said of the move, which has allowed for further attrition of Russian troops while allowing experienced Ukrainian personnel to be trained on Western equipment to prepare for counterattacks.
“The Ukrainian military will hold while it completes new defense lines and will only withdraw if there is a risk of losing too many troops,” he added.
Wagner financier Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a message on Telegram that Russian troops had surrounded the city and appealed to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to allow residents to leave.
However, the commander of Ukraine’s special operations forces, Viktor Chorenko, inspected his troops in the city and said Ukrainian troops were “clearly carrying out their assigned tasks” despite the “extremely difficult conditions”.
news week asked the defense ministries of Ukraine and Russia for their opinion.