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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Ukraine claims gains near Bakhmut as deadly fighting continues

Flowers adorn graves in the main cemetery in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson, May 9, 2023.

By Carlotta Gall and Maria Varenikova

Ukrainian military commanders said Wednesday that their troops had broken through Russian positions on the southern flank of the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, forcing Russian units back from their positions at an important bridgehead of a canal.

Ukrainian officials and the head of Russia’s Wagner militia group said Russian troops had lost an area of roughly 3 square miles southwest of the city. If confirmed, it would be the first significant gain for Ukraine in the fight for Bakhmut since pushing Russian forces off a key access road two months ago, although it was far from clear that Ukrainian forces could hold the ground or that it was a turning point in the monthslong battle.

The fighting around the city did not seem to be part of a broader counteroffensive that Kyiv has said will begin soon, but came amid an uptick in Ukrainian strikes behind Russian lines and reports of increased attacks in Russian regions bordering Ukraine. The Ukrainian operation near Bakhmut hit Russian army troops as they were rotating into position and was an opportunistic strike on a weak link in the Russian front, Ukrainian military officers said.

Russia’s Defense Ministry has not commented on the reports.

The Ukrainians said they broke through Russian lines in an area of fields, ravines and thickets of trees to the southwest of Bakhmut. Ukrainian commanders said several units — including the Azov soldiers in the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, a special forces unit; the Adam Tactical Group; and the Ukrainian Volunteer Army, a group that includes civilian volunteers — had carried out the attack.

Andriy Biletsky, a commander of the Ukrainian 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, said in a video statement released early Wednesday that his troops had seized Russian positions and inflicted heavy losses on Russian troops. Two Russian companies, units typically with about 100 soldiers each, and a reconnaissance team had been “completely destroyed” in the fighting, he said.

His video statement, filmed at night, appeared to corroborate information released by Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner militia group that is leading the assault on Bakhmut.

Prigozhin said in a video statement Tuesday that the Russian flank had been broken. Known for his outspoken and often self-serving criticism of Russia’s military, Prigozhin accused units of the 72nd Brigade of the Russian army of abandoning their positions.

“Everyone fled and exposed a front almost 2 kilometers wide and 500 meters deep,” he said.

Prigozhin’s Wagner forces have played a key role in Russia’s assault on Bakhmut, but he has frequently blamed Russian military leaders for failing to adequately supply his forces. He released his statement just as President Vladimir Putin of Russia was attending the traditional Victory Day military parade in Moscow’s Red Square to commemorate the Soviet defeat over the Nazis in World War II.

He added that his forces had to move in to prevent a further Ukrainian advance. “It’s good we managed to block it somehow,” he said.

Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said in a statement that the attack was part of a “defensive operation” aimed at stalling the Russian assault on Bakhmut, which has been raging for 11 months — one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the war. Syrsky did not mention the long-anticipated counteroffensive that Ukraine and its Western allies have been preparing for months with newly equipped and trained brigades.

Ukrainian commanders fighting in and around Bakhmut have said that their role is to prevent Russian advances while new brigades are trained and assembled to carry out the expected counteroffensive. They also said that they sensed that the Russian army was demoralized and thinly stretched in places along the front line, making them vulnerable.

A midlevel commander in the 3rd Assault Brigade who asked to be identified by his nickname, Zayan, in keeping with Ukrainian military rules, said of what might come next in the fight for Bakhmut: “Anything is possible.”

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