Ukraine’s top military commander said on Tuesday that blocking Russian advances in the ruined city of Bakhmut remained of “paramount strategic importance” and vowed that the Ukrainian military would hold the line there despite staggering casualties on both sides.
“It is key to the stability of the defense of the entire front,” Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhny, the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, said in a statement after meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top Ukrainian officials.
While Russian forces now control the eastern half of Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces in the western half have taken up defensive positions in abandoned fortifications behind a river that bisects the city. Ukrainian officials said they have stabilized control over the last remaining road they can use to supply and reinforce their forces.
The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, said on Monday that Russian forces, led by mercenaries from the Wagner private military company, were struggling to reach the center of Bakhmut.
“All enemy attempts to capture the city are repelled by artillery, tanks, and other firepower,” he said.
Waged since last summer, the battle for Bakhmut is one of the longest and deadliest since Russia launched its full-scale invasion nearly 13 months ago, and in recent months Moscow has allocated heaps of resources to trying to capture the city.
Some Ukrainian and Western military analysts have questioned the wisdom of maintaining the defensive line around Bakhmut, suggesting that the rate of casualties is running too high to justify holding a town of political and symbolic resonance but only marginal strategic value.
It is difficult to assess the wisdom of Ukraine’s strategy because there are no reliable, independent assessments of casualties. Both sides agree, though, that tens of thousands of Russians and Ukrainians have been injured and killed in the battle.
Ivan Kyrychevskyi, a Ukrainian defense analyst, said that Ukrainian forces had waited as long as they could to withdraw to the western half of the city and had now established “a zone of defeat” where the Russians would continue to lose large numbers of troops, weakening their forces before an expected Ukrainian offensive in the spring.
“The current situation is crucial to the success of our future counteroffensive,” he said.
In the northwestern corner of Bakhmut, Wagner soldiers posted photographs from an industrial complex, suggesting that they had reached the same location where Mr. Zelensky had made a daring visit in December to rally Ukrainian soldiers.
The British military’s intelligence agency said on Tuesday that Russia’s shortage of artillery ammunition has likely grown worse in recent weeks, to the extent that forces are rationing shells on many parts of the eastern front.
With Ukrainian soldiers also expressing concerns about their own shortages of ammunition, officials in Kyiv are urging Western allies to speed up delivery of arms. Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, said Tuesday that negotiations were continuing to procure more fighter jets to protect Ukraine’s skies.
Mr. Reznikov told reporters that air power will be critical for a successful counteroffensive, and that Russian forces had already moved into defensive positions in southern Ukraine, where they will try to keep control of a ribbon of land between Crimea from Russia. He also said that Moscow is making contingency plans, by digging an elaborate trench system in Crimea; new trenches are visible in recently released satellite images.
“The Russians believe that the Ukrainians will launch a counteroffensive,” Mr. Reznikov said. “And this is a good sign. We are already creating the future. They have already lost. Once they went on the defensive in their special military operation, they have already lost this war.”