Ukraine eyes an offensive around Bakhmut, as Russian momentum stalls
By Rob Picheta, Vasco Cotovio, Olga Voitovych and Svitlana Vlasova, CNN
Russian forces are depleted in Bakhmut and a Ukrainian counter-offensive could soon be launched, one of Kyiv’s top generals has said, raising the prospect of an unlikely turnaround in the besieged city.
Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s land forces, said on his Telegram channel Thursday that “[Russians] are losing significant forces [in Bakhmut] and are running out of energy.”
“Very soon, we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we did in the past near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupyansk,” he said.
His comments come days after Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky made a surprise trip to the front lines of the Donetsk region, and will raise hopes in the West that Kyiv’s contentious decision to keep troops in Bakhmut will pay dividends.
A counter-offensive has seemed an unlikely prospect for several weeks, as forces from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group bombarded Bakhmut and edged closer toward seizing control of the city.
But that effort has come at a considerable cost to manpower and resources, and now appears to have slowed.
Russian troops have launched more than 200 strikes on the area in the past 24 hours alone but are losing hundreds of men each day in their efforts, the spokesman for the Eastern Grouping of the Armed Forces, Serhii Cherevatyi, said later on Thursday. CNN is unable to verify those figures.
Cherevatyi said another area that was seeing intense fire was to the northeast of Bakhmut, on the front line running north from the town of Kreminna.
Speaking on Ukrainian television Friday, Cherevatyi said that “It is not that [Wagner] are withdrawing, but that due to heavy losses they have to be reinforced by units of the regular army of the Russian Federation, primarily by airborne troops.”
He added that Russian forces in the area are “making several dozen attacks every day. There were 32 firefights over the last day,” in and around Bakhmut. There were also air strikes launched by both fixed-wing planes and attack helicopters, he said, but added that “artillery is a much bigger factor of influence on military operations there than aviation.”
On Thursday, the Ukrainian National Resistance Center — an official body — said that Wagner mercenaries had begun deporting residents of the Bakhmut suburbs they control.
“Militants forcefully take local residents to captured areas of Luhansk region, where they are filtered. After that, they are deported to Perm (Russia) and other remote regions of the Russian Federation,” the Center said. “Locals are deported under the intention of evacuation. After that, they are assimilated in remote areas of the empire, because they are now dependent on the occupiers.” The Center’s claim could not be verified.
The optimism of land forces commander Syrskyi reflected a Wednesday update from the the Ukrainian military’s General Staff, which said in a statement that while Bakhmut is still expected to see heavy fighting, Russia’s “offensive potential is decreasing” there.
“The enemy keeps trying to take the city, losing a significant amount of manpower, weapons and military equipment,” it said on Wednesday.
Western intelligence strikes a similar tone. “The tempo of Russian operations around Bakhmut appears to be slowing,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank wrote in its Wednesday update on the conflict.
But that shift may also indicate a change in Russia’s priorities. “There is a realistic possibility that the Russian assault on the town is losing the limited momentum it had obtained, partially because some Russian MoD units have been reallocated to other sectors,” the British Ministry of Defence said Wednesday.
Zelensky handed out awards to troops defending Bakhmut during a morale-boosting trip on Wednesday. “It is an honor for me to support our warriors who are defending the country in the toughest frontline conditions,” he later said in his nightly address.
The lengthy resistance of Ukrainian troops could yet vindicate his decision to ignore some Western calls to tactically retreat from Bakhmut as the Russian offensive closed in.
“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky told CNN earlier this month, laying out his decision-making and insisting that Kyiv’s military brass was united in prolonging its defense of the city.
“We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction,” he said.
A city 20 kilometers west of Bakhmut is also being struck with increasing frequency by Russian missiles, Ukrainian authorities said Friday.
Authorities said three people were killed in an overnight Russian missile attack on the city of Kostantynivka in Donetsk region.
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CNN’s Tim Lister and Victoria Butenko contributed reporting.