Russia Acknowledges Retreat North of Bakhmut

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Moscow acknowledged on Friday that its forces had fallen back north of Ukraine’s battlefield city of Bakhmut after a new Ukrainian offensive, in a retreat that the head of Russia’s Wagner private army called a rout. The setback for Russia, which had seized the western districts of the heavily destroyed salt mining city in December, is another major blow to Putin’s war effort.

It is the first time that Moscow has admitted a Russian defeat in an area where Ukraine has fought for months. And it comes a day after Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told reporters that the fighting and forward movement in Bakhmut suggested that Kyiv’s anticipated counteroffensive is finally underway.

Zelenskyy’s comments triggered a sharp response from the Kremlin-linked Wagner mercenary group leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin. He dismissed as “regrettable” the report by the Defense Ministry that Ukraine had pushed back the Russian troops, which he described as having fled their positions in the area around Bakhmut, leaving them exposed to enemy fire from all directions. “What Konashenkov described, unfortunately, is a rout,” he said in an audio message. “Our flanks are crumbling.” In a separate video, Prigozhin, who has threatened to pack up his forces and leave the front lines in Bakhmut unless Russia breaks its plans to stockpile dwindling supplies of ammunition ahead of an expected Ukrainian counteroffensive, also said that Ukraine had reclaimed key high ground overlooking the city and opened a main highway leading into it from the west. He claimed that the Ukrainians had freed up five sq km of territory on Friday alone.

Analysts believe that the setbacks for Russian forces in Bakhmut are a sign that Ukraine is working to encircle the city in what is known as a double envelopment, which involves simultaneously attacking from two different directions. The strategy would be to cut off the routes to the city from the northwest and southwest and the railway line running into Bakhmut from the east.

Ukraine’s 93rd brigade, which holds the area north of the city, has already moved in that direction, and commanders say they are now also striking at Russian positions in the south of the region. The advance suggests that Ukraine is slowly unclenching the pincers that Mercantile Marine and other Wagner units have created around the city to take it.

A military blogger who has tracked the fighting in Bakhmut says that despite the Russian military’s claim to have held firm, the fact is that it is losing ground and will lose more as the battle continues.

The setback for Russia follows reports of Ukraine regaining 2km of territory south of Bakhmut, which some analysts suggest is part of a coordinated push to encircle the city from two sides. In a video released this week, Prigozhin complained that the Ukraine advance had deprived his forces of their supply line to Bakhmut. In addition, he criticized the Ukrainian military leadership for failing to make enough ammo available for his forces.

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