KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The Ukrainian military might pull troops back from the key stronghold of Bakhmut, an adviser to Ukraine’s president said Wednesday in remarks that suggested Russia could capture the city that has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.
Kremlin forces have waged a bloody, months-long offensive to take Bakhmut, a city of salt and gypsum mines in eastern Ukraine that has become a ghost town.
“Our military is obviously going to weigh all of the options. So far, they’ve held the city, but if need be, they will strategically pull back,” Alexander Rodnyansky, an economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told CNN. “We’re not going to sacrifice all of our people just for nothing.”
The battle for Bakhmut has come to embody Ukraine’s determination as the city’s defenders hold out against relentless shelling and Russian troops suffer heavy casualties.
Bakhmut lies in Donetsk province, one of four provinces Russia illegally annexed last fall. Moscow controls half of Donetsk province. To take the remaining half of that province, Russian forces must go through Bakhmut, the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian troops took back Izium in Kharkiv province in September.
Analysts say the fall of Bakhmut would be a blow for Ukraine and offer tactical advantages to Russia, but would not prove decisive to the war’s outcome.
Rodnyansky noted that Russia was using the Wagner Group’s best troops to try to encircle the city. The private military company known for brutal tactics is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a rogue millionaire with longtime links to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin said Wednesday that he had seen no signs of a Ukrainian withdrawal and that Kyiv has, in fact, been reinforcing its positions.
“The Ukrainian army is deploying additional troops and is doing what it can to retain control of the city,” Prigozhin said. “Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are offering fierce resistance, and the fighting is getting increasingly bloody by day.”
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said earlier this week that reinforcements had been dispatched to Bakhmut.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov told the Associated Press that the reinforcements may have been sent “to gain time” for strengthening Ukrainian firing lines on a hill in Chasiv Yar, 15 kilometers (9.3 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.
Bakhmut is now partly encircled, and all roads, including the main supply route, are within range of Russian fire, Zhdanov said. The city lies in ruins and “no longer has strategic or operational significance.”
“In Bakhmut, the Russians lost so many forces — soldiers and equipment — that this city has already fulfilled its function,” Zhdanov said.
Recent drone footage showed the scale of devastation in the city, and Zelensky has described it as “destroyed.”
Since invading Ukraine a year ago, Russia has bombarded various cities and towns it wanted to occupy. It also targeted Ukraine’s power supply with missile strikes ahead of winter in an apparent attempt to weaken residents’ morale.
While Western analysts have warned that warmer weather might give Moscow an opportunity to renew an offensive, Ukrainian officials nonetheless celebrated Wednesday as their traditional first day of spring.
Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba announced that his country had emerged from Putin’s “winter terror.”
“We survived the most difficult winter in our history,” Kuleba wrote on Facebook.
Zelenskyy added in his nightly video address: “This winter is over. It was very difficult, and every Ukrainian felt this difficulty without exaggeration. But still, we were able to provide Ukraine with energy and heat.”
If the war becomes a protracted conflict, Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Kariņs said that would demand a response from Kyiv’s Western allies.
“This is potentially, for many years to come, where we will have to readapt our militaries, our military industry, to be able to step up to a much, much bigger challenge,” Karins said after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Meanwhile, one of Zelensky’s top advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, denied on Wednesday that Ukraine had used drones to attack Russian territory following official Russian statements that Ukraine had targeted infrastructure deep inside Russia.
“Ukraine does not strike on the territory of the Russian Federation. Ukraine is waging a defensive war with the aim of de-occupying all its territories,” Podolyak wrote on Twitter, suggesting the targeting of Russian infrastructure was the result of “internal attacks.”
Ukraine’s Western allies have discouraged Ukraine from attacking targets in Russia to avoid escalation of the conflict, and Podolyak’s statement could reflect an attempt by Kyiv to maintain a degree of deniability in view of those Western concerns.
In the past, Ukrainian officials have stopped short of claiming responsibility for attacks in Russia, but also insisted that they have the right to strike any target in Russian territory in response to its aggression.
Asked about Podolyak’s denial, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, “We don’t believe it.”
Pictures of a drone that fell near the village of Gubastovo, less than 100 kilometers (60 miles) from Moscow, showed it was a small Ukrainian-made model with a reported range of up to 800 kilometers (nearly 500 miles), but no capacity to carry many explosives.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said Wednesday it prevented a massive drone attack on Crimea. According to Russian state media, air defenses shot down six drones, while electronic warfare systems disabled four others.
Also Wednesday, Belarusian state TV attempted to knock down claims of another attack.
Belarusian activists supporting Ukraine alleged that a Russian A-50 early warning and control aircraft was seriously damaged Sunday in an attack on the Machulishchy air base outside the country’s capital, Minsk.
Belarusian state television on Wednesday called the report “fake” and said: “A-50 is safe and sound! The liner both performed and continues to perform its work within the framework of the allied grouping of Belarus and Russia, and is ready to take off at any moment.”
State TV showed nighttime video of the plane taxiing on a runway, but it did not state the date of the recording or whether the plane had been damaged, then repaired.
Satellite photos Tuesday from Planet Labs PBC and Maxar Technologies appeared to show the plane largely intact, with discoloration on the circular rotodome above its fuselage that could represent damage.
In other developments, the Ukrainian president’s office reported that at least nine civilians were killed and 12 others wounded.
Three people, including a 1-year-old boy, were wounded in Russian shelling of Ukraine’s southern Kherson province on Wednesday, regional officials reported.
Fierce fighting also continued in Donetsk province, with the cities of Avdiivka and Vuhledar, and 17 towns and villages, coming under intense Russian shelling, along with Bakhmut.