OUTSIDE BAKHMUT, Ukraine (AP) — As Ukrainian battalion commander Oleg Shiryaev viewed images from a drone camera overhead, he warned his men in nearby trenches that Russian troops were advancing across a field into a stand of trees outside the city City of Bakhmut.
The leader of the 225th Battalion of the 127th Kharkiv Territorial Defense Brigade then ordered a mortar team to prepare. A target has been acquired. A loud orange bang erupted from a mortar barrel, and an explosion tore a new crater in an already pockmarked hillock.
“We’re making progress,” Shiryaev said after at least one drone image showed a downed Russian fighter. “We fight for every tree, every ditch, every shelter.”
Russian forces last month declared victory in the eastern city after the longest and deadliest battle since they began their all-out invasion of Ukraine 15 months ago. But Ukrainian defenders like Shiryaev don’t retreat. Instead they keep the pressure up and continue the fight from positions on the western edge of Bakhmut.
The pushback gives commanders in Moscow another reason to think much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive that seems to be taking shape.
Deputy Defense Minister of Ukraine Hanna Maliar said Russia has tried to create the impression of calm around Bakhmut, but in fact artillery shelling is still continuing on a similar scale to that seen at the height of the battle to capture the city. The fight, she said, is developing into a new phase.
“The battle for the Bakhmut area has not stopped; It’s ongoing and just taking different forms,” Maliar, dressed in her signature work clothes, said in an interview at a military media center in Kyiv. Russian forces are now attempting, but failing, to drive Ukrainian fighters from the “dominant heights” above Bakhmut.
“We hold her very tight,” she said.
From the Kremlin’s point of view, the area around Bakhmut is just part of the more than 1,000-kilometer front line that the Russian military must hold. This task could be made more difficult with the departure of the mercenaries private military contractor Wagner Group who helped take control of the city. They are replaced by Russian soldiers.
For Ukrainian forces, the recent work has been opportunistic – trying to wrest small gains from the enemy and take strategic positions, particularly from two flanks in the north-west and south-west where Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade was active, officials said.
Russia envisioned the capture of Bakhmut as a partial fulfillment of its goal of seizing control of the eastern Donbass region, Ukraine’s industrial heartland. Now his forces were forced to regroup, switch fighters, and upgrade just to hold the city. Wagner’s owner announced a withdrawal after confirmation the loss of more than 20,000 his men.
Maliar described the nine-month struggle against Wagner’s forces in almost existential terms: “If they hadn’t been destroyed defending Bakhmut, one could imagine all those tens of thousands moving deeper into Ukrainian territory.”
The fate of Bakhmut, mostly in ruins, has been overshadowed by near-night raids on Kiev in recent days, a series of unclaimed drone strikes near Moscow and growing expectations that the Ukrainian government will try to regain ground win.
But the battle for the city could still have a lasting effect. Moscow made the most of its conquest, embodied by triumphalism in the Russian media. Any drifting away by Russia would be a political embarrassment for President Vladimir Putin.
Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyzes, a US research group, noted on a podcast this week that the victory poses new challenges for Bakhmut’s detention.
With the Wagner fighters withdrawing, Russian forces will “become more fixated on Bakhmut… and he will be difficult to defend,” Kofman said “War on the Rocks” in an interview published on Tuesday.
“And so they may not be sticking with Bakhmut, and the whole thing may have been for naught for them down the line,” he added.
A Western official, who wished to remain anonymous, said Russian airborne troops are heavily involved in replacing the withdrawing Wagner troops – a move that will “likely anger” the airborne troops’ leadership, who see the task as a further erosion of their ” previous elite status” in the military.
A Ukrainian analyst said Ukrainian forces were retaking parts of the territory on the flanks – a few hundred meters (yards) a day – to strengthen defense lines and look for opportunities to retake some urban parts of the city.
“The target in Bakhmut is not Bakhmut itself, which has been turned into ruins,” military analyst Roman Svitan said over the phone. The Ukrainians’ goal is to hold the western heights and maintain a defensive arc outside the city.
More broadly, Ukraine wants to pressure Russian forces and seize the initiative ahead of the counteroffensive — part of what military analysts call “shaping operations” to set the conditions for the battlefield and put an enemy in a defensive, reactive stance.
Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine’s forces in the east, said the strategic objective in the Bakhmut area is to “hold back the enemy and destroy as much personnel and equipment as possible” while preventing a Russian breakthrough or evasion maneuver.
Analyst Mathieu Boulègue questioned whether Bakhmut would have lessons or significance in the war ahead.
Military superiority is important, he said, but so is “information superiority” — the ability to “create deception, to cover up one’s force, to be able to move in secret.”
Boulègue, senior adviser to the Russia and Eurasia program at the think tank Chatham House in London, said these tactics “could decide which side gains an advantage that surprises the other side and turns the tide of the war.”
Jamey Keaten reported from Kyiv, Ukraine. Hanna Arhirova and Illia Novikov in Kiev, Yuras Karmanau in Tallinn, Estonia, and Jill Lawless in London contributed to this report.