The Ukrainian Army is advancing attacks near the eastern town of Bakhmut, Ukrainian commanders said on Friday, in fighting that saw little shift in the front line but revealed fissures, confusion and alarm among the forces of Russia at war.
Russian pro-war bloggers were quick to claim that the long-awaited counter-offensive in Ukraine had begun, but Ukrainian officials played down the developments and described them in more domestic terms. Ukrainian soldiers breached Russian lines south of Bakhmut on Wednesday, they said, and then took advantage of the breach, attacking Russian forces near the town and threatening Russia’s flanks to the north and south. A video that appears to have been first posted by Ukrainian news outlet Channel 24, which it said was provided by Ukraine’s 77th Airmobile Brigade, showed parts of northern Bakhmut burning on Friday night.
Bakhmut has been at the center of the war in eastern Ukraine for months: a largely destroyed city where tens of thousands of soldiers are believed to have died, and the only place on the hundreds of miles of front where Russia regularly – attack. That changed this week, as Ukraine put Russian forces on the defensive, presenting them with a difficult strategic decision about whether to fortify the city and setting off a new round of clashes between commanders. in Russia.
Videos released Friday by Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade show soldiers piling into armored personnel carriers and attacking a Russian trench. “Forward, forward!” a soldier shouted in the video, filmed on a helmet camera. The soldiers dived for cover as Russian fighters threw a hand grenade, then ran forward and threw their own grenade into a Russian bunker. The video cannot be independently verified.
“The defensive phase of the battle for Bakhmut is over,” said Andriy Biletsky, who has the final command of the brigade, among other units of the Ukrainian Army. Now, he said, Ukraine will increase the pressure on the Russians from the north and the south.
“We advance a little more on our flank,” said a drone operator of the Adam Tactical Group, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Sem. In an interview on Friday, he described a nighttime seesaw battle south of Bakhmut, where Russian soldiers tried to retake a position but were repulsed by a Ukrainian artillery bombardment.
Another Ukrainian soldier, who gave his call sign as Bandit, said the artillery and rocket fire echoing around the hills near Bakhmut was “all our fire toward the Russian side.”
“We are still learning about the enemy and we want to see what he does in this situation,” he said, adding that Ukrainian soldiers tested Russian positions and “cleared a forest belt .”
A retreat from Bakhmut, a city that lacks strategic importance but has become a symbolic prize, would represent a humiliating setback for the Russian military. Russia has not captured a Ukrainian city since July, and continues to advance on Bakhmut despite heavy losses.
It is difficult to gauge whether Ukraine’s progress will be sustained. Russian forces at one point drove Ukrainian troops from all but a few blocks of the city.
Ukrainian advances this week cut Russian lines in the largest bulge by just three miles, but the success erased what Moscow’s forces had painstakingly achieved for months.
That gives Russia a difficult choice. If Russia does not strengthen its flanking positions around Bakhmut, it risks a humiliating political failure. But if it moves reserve forces toward the city, it could weaken defenses in the south, where many analysts expect Ukraine to attack toward the Sea of Azov in an attempt to cut off a supply route to the occupied Crimea.
Ukrainian officials did not describe the attacks as the start of a widely expected counteroffensive. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview with the BBC this week, said that Ukraine wants more weapons and ammunition to arrive before it starts the offensive.
The stakes of the offensive in Ukraine will extend the country’s efforts to get more aid: A military collapse could entice Western officials to send more material, while failure or stalemate could push them to hold back. to support or encourage negotiations. European foreign ministers urged China’s top diplomat this week to do more for Beijing to resolve the war, and China, which has positioned itself as a potential mediator while offering diplomatic and economic aid to Russia , announced that an envoy will visit Ukraine and Russia next week.
That is why Ukrainian leaders, who are well aware of their dependence on Western support, have difficulty distinguishing the new attacks from a wider offensive. The commander of the ground forces of Ukraine, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, this week described the actions of Ukraine as mostly defensive, but said that the soldiers were able to “carry out effective attacks.”
“In some forward areas, the enemy could not withstand the attack of Ukrainian defenders and retreated to a distance of up to two kilometers,” he said in a statement.
But Russian military bloggers responded with alarm to Kyiv’s gains near Bakhmut. The bloggers, who often report from the front and have links to various commanders or the Wagner mercenary group, are strongly pro-war and can be influential inside Russia, urging Moscow to commit to more fighting resources.
“Wagner gave a lot of blood and sweat for this territory, some gave their lives,” wrote Aleksandr Yaremchuk, a Russian military correspondent aligned with Wagner, whose fighters led the nearly year-long fight for Bakhmut. “It’s hard for me to believe that other units abandoned their positions so quickly.”
The outcry drew rare recognition from the Russian Ministry of Defense, which on Friday said its forces had withdrawn to an area around Bakhmut.
The head of Wagner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, appeared to support the bloggers’ assessment. On Thursday, he posted an open letter to the Russian defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, about the losses in the flank positions, saying that “the enemy has made many successful – attack.”
The flurry of posts, videos and statements also reveal tensions and friction between Russia’s disparate forces in Ukraine. Mr. Prigozhin, a longtime aggressive critic of Mr. Shoigu and other top defense officials this week issued a series of scathing audio and video messages, including comments that some observers interpreted as his first direct criticism of the President. Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
Cracks appeared elsewhere, too, as Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, whose paramilitary forces fought alongside Wagner in Ukraine, criticized Mr. Prigozhin, his longtime ally, in a video broadside.
Some prominent Russian pro-war bloggers have warned that anger is beginning to affect the battlefield performance at a crucial moment.
“Not a single commandment is respected without exception,” wrote a blogger, Anastasia Kashevarova. “We have many people in front, and no one can make an agreement with each other.”
“The enemy,” he added, “used it.”
Reporting was contributed by Anatoly Kurmanaev, Maria Varenikova, Riley Mellen, Ishaan Jhaveri and Dmitry Khavin.