By Matthew Mpoke Bigg
Ukrainian authorities are stepping up efforts to persuade the few thousand remaining civilians to leave Bakhmut in the face of a sustained Russian assault, a regional official said Tuesday, adding to signs that Kyiv may be preparing to retreat from a city it has defended fiercely for months.
The city, which had a prewar population of around 70,000, has steadily been emptying as the fighting has intensified. Fewer than 5,000 residents are still there, about 140 of them children, said Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the regional military administration.
In a further effort to reduce the number of civilians in the city, military authorities were permitting only people with special passes to return once they had left, Kyrylenko said in a national television broadcast. A day earlier, authorities barred aid workers from entering the city, saying it was too dangerous as Russian forces surrounded it on three sides.
“The military must focus on preparing defensive lines,” Kyrylenko said Tuesday.
Bakhmut has been the focus of a grinding Russian campaign along the roughly 140-mile eastern front. Should the city fall, it would mark Russia’s biggest battlefield victory in months and add to pressure on Ukraine’s Western allies to step up their support of Kyiv. Representatives of dozens of nations that have provided military and financial aid were meeting Tuesday in Brussels, discussing Ukraine’s urgent needs for ammunition and requests for even more advanced equipment, including aircraft.
Ukraine said it was still holding on in Bakhmut, but officials have said that battles have grown more intense. There were 37 separate clashes around the city in the previous 24 hours, Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, an armed forces spokesperson, said on Ukrainian television.
Cherevaty said that part of the reason for the new rules on civilian access was to keep military operations secret.
Months of conflict, Russian artillery attacks and fierce fighting have shattered Bakhmut, cutting off power and water and making daily life virtually untenable for most civilians. Ukrainian authorities first ordered civilians to leave the surrounding Donetsk region this past summer, and many who remain are older people for whom health problems can make travel difficult.
Civilians can leave on their own, but aid groups, both domestic and international, have assisted, often at great personal risk.
Bakhmut has become an increasingly important prize for both sides, in part because of the number of troops that have been committed to the battle and the casualties that each side has sustained.
“The Russian occupiers are constantly changing their tactics,” according to an account of the battle for Bakhmut posted on Facebook on Monday by Ukraine’s 93rd Separate Mechanized Brigade. “Sometimes they attack with small assault groups, sometimes dozens of mobilized are involved in the assault.”
Russian forces have made gains in recent weeks, cutting off some of Ukraine’s supply lines in a push to encircle the city. Denis Pushilin, the head of the pro-Russian authority in Donetsk, said Tuesday that Russian forces were fighting in the village of Paraskoviivka on the northern outskirts of the city.
“There are no prospects that the enemy will surrender and leave positions without a fight,” he said on Russian television Tuesday.
John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesperson, said that Russia had made incremental gains around Bakhmut in the past two days, but he played down the military significance of the city.
“Even if Bakhmut were to fall, it would not have a strategic impact on the overall war,” he said. “I would go so far as to say it won’t even have necessarily a strategic impact on the fighting in that part of the country.”