Russia’s Ministry of Defense confirmed it is retreating forces from Bakhmut, Ukraine, which Russian forces have been trying and failing to seize for months.
Russia has regrouped to “more advantageous defensive positions” north of Bakhmut, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Friday.
The news comes after months of Russian efforts to take Bakhmut, which officials set their sights on as an important city to capture, believing it could determine the course of the war. Bakhmut has an intersection of rail and roads that lead to strategically important cities in the Donbas. Russia finds itself on the backfoot as Ukraine prepares to launch a counteroffensive sometime this spring or summer, according to U.S. intelligence assessments.
While President Zelensky has said Ukraine still needs more time before launching its counteroffensive, Ukraine said Friday its forces are making gains in Bakhmut in some pockets.
Exactly what Russia’s plan and messaging for the apparent retreat appears to remain in flux. The Russian Ministry of Defense denied that Ukraine was making gains in Bakhmut. Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the head of Russian Wagner Group, which has been fighting in Bakhmut, claimed the retreat is “a flight, not a regrouping.” He complained this week that territories were being “abandoned.” Prigozhin acknowledged Ukraine was making some “successful counterattacks.”
Earlier this week it looked like the Russians were making a push in Bakhmut, intensifying shelling and using more advanced equipment, according to the Ukrainian commander of ground forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi. That “shows that the enemy is not going to change their plans and is doing everything possible to take Bakhmut under control and continue offensive actions,” Syrskyi said.
Russia’s fight to capture Bakhmut has played out over the last several months, following a dearth of Russian gains on the battlefield throughout Ukraine. Despite announcements of a Russian offensive this winter, Russia has only captured a smattering of territories in recent months.
Through the heavy fighting, Russia has sustained hundreds of thousands of casualties, according to a recent White House National Security Council brief.
Russia’s faltering in Bakhmut is emblematic of broader problems for its military. Russian President Vladimir Putin has likely scaled back his goals in Ukraine to focus on just Eastern Ukraine, Avril Haines, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told lawmakers in a briefing early this month. Current U.S. intelligence assessments peg Russia as likely incapable of making sweeping gains this year and that Russia’s military will take years to rebuild given its losses in Ukraine, according to a U.S. intelligence community briefing on Capitol Hill.
“We assess that Putin probably has scaled back his immediate ambitions to consolidate control of the occupied territory in eastern and southern Ukraine,” Haines said.
While the exact timing of a Ukrainian counteroffensive hangs in the balance, Ukrainian officials have cautioned that it may not look like one major push.
“The Armed Forces of Ukraine are not preparing some single plan for a specific time or a specific direction. Rather, every day, they prepare a vast array of defensive and counteroffensive strategies,” Ukraine’s Deputy Minister for Defense, Hanna Malyar, said last month.
And from Ukraine’s perspective, the counteroffensive should ideally come as somewhat of a surprise, so determining exactly when it begins may be difficult, Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Oleskii Reznikov, said in an interview last month.
Reznikov warned that talk of the counteroffensive has been “somewhat overheated” given that western countries and Ukrainians are ginning up for a win.
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