Ukraine’s top generals want to keep defending Bakhmut, as Russian fighters demand more ammunition.

Ukrainian forces continue to defend the eastern city, Bakhmut, against brutal Russian attacks that have knocked out basic utilities including gas and water.CreditCredit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Ukraine’s top generals want to bolster their forces clinging on in Bakhmut, the government said on Monday, suggesting that Kyiv would continue to defend the battered eastern city despite its near-encirclement by Russian forces and growing speculation about a possible Ukrainian retreat.

After holding a scheduled meeting with the military’s top generals, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that the situation in Bakhmut was a particular focus, with Ukraine’s most senior military commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and another top commander signaling that Ukraine’s fight there should continue.

“They spoke in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut,” Mr. Zelensky’s office said in a statement about the meeting.

Russian forces have been pounding Bakhmut and the surrounding areas in a brutal monthslong campaign, slowly tightening their grip around the city. The advances have led some Ukrainian officials in recent days to start preparing the public for the possibility of a retreat. But Ukrainian assault brigades went on the attack over the weekend and appeared to push back Russian forces.

Russian forces attacking the city from three directions have leaned heavily on assaults by fighters including ex-convicts recruited by the Wagner mercenary group. The group’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has sought to cast his mercenaries as the vanguard of the Russian assault. But in recent weeks he has also complained that his forces have been hamstrung by senior military commanders seeking to deny him credit.

He repeated that complaint on Monday in a social media post, claiming that his representative was banned from the Russian military headquarters in Ukraine after requesting additional ammunition.

In a separate audio message, Mr. Prigozhin said that Ukrainian forces not only seemed intent on holding the city, but were most likely preparing a counteroffensive to trap exposed Wagner units around Bakhmut. He urged the Russian military to send reinforcements and ammunition to avoid his fighters being cut off. “If not, we are all” in deep trouble, he said, using an expletive.

On Monday morning, Ukraine’s military said that Russian forces “continue attempts to storm the city of Bakhmut and neighboring settlements.” Despite the ongoing assaults, it said on Sunday that soldiers in the city were “holding the lines” and receiving support.

“There is an opportunity to deliver ammunition, provisions, medicines, and take the wounded from there,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, the spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command, said on national television on Sunday night.

The battle for Bakhmut has been one of the longest sustained campaigns of the war, with both sides suffering heavy casualties. While Bakhmut itself has limited strategic value, the city has taken on heightened symbolic importance for both sides. Capturing Bakhmut would hand Russia its first significant battlefield victory in months, while for Ukraine, the city has become an emblem of resistance to Moscow’s invasion.

The U.S. defense secretary, Lloyd J. Austin III, echoed that assessment on Monday when he was asked about the status of the battle. While noting that he refrains from making predictions, he told reporters that Bakhmut is “more of a symbolic value than it is a strategic and operational value.”

“So the fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” he said while en route to the Middle East.

Mr. Zelensky, who last month called Bakhmut “our fortress” and vowed not to give up the city, used his nightly address on Sunday to praise Ukrainian soldiers defending it for their bravery.

“It is one of the toughest battles,” he said of fighting in eastern Ukraine. “Painful and challenging.”

New York Times, March 6, 2023