© Reuters. Ukrainian servicemen ride atop a tank on a road towards the frontline town of Bakhmut, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine May 12, 2023. REUTERS/ Sofia Gatilova
By Olena Harmash and Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey
KYIV/KOSTIANTYNIVKA, Ukraine (Reuters) – Moscow acknowledged on Friday that its forces had retreated north to the Ukrainian battlefield town of Bakhmut after another Ukrainian offensive, in a retreat that the chief of the private army Russian Wagner called it a rout.
The Russian setback, which follows similar reports of Ukrainian advances south of the city, suggests a coordinated push from Kiev to encircle Russian forces in Bakhmut, Moscow’s main objective for months during the fiercest fighting. bloody war.
It means both sides are now reporting the largest Ukrainian gains in six months, although Ukraine has given few details and played down suggestions that a huge, long-planned counter-offensive has officially begun.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Ukraine launched an assault north of Bakhmut with more than 1,000 troops and up to 40 tanks, a scale that, if confirmed, would would constitute the largest Ukrainian offensive since November.
The Russians had repelled 26 attacks but troops in one area had fallen back to regroup in more favorable positions near the Berkhivka Reservoir northwest of Bakhmut, Konashenkov said.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagnerian forces who led the campaign in the city, said in an audio message: “What Konashenkov described, unfortunately, is called ‘a rout’ and not a regrouping.”
In a separate video message, Prigozhin said the Ukrainians seized high ground overlooking Bakhmut and opened the main road leading to the city from the west.
“The loss of the Berkhivka reservoir – the loss of this territory that they gave up – is 5 km2 today alone,” Prigozhin said.
“The enemy has completely liberated the Chasiv Yar-Bakhmut road which we had blocked. The enemy is now able to use this road, and secondly they have taken tactical heights under which Bakhmut is located,” Prigozhin said. , which has repeatedly denounced Russia’s regular army over the past week for failing to supply its men in Bakhmut.
Russian-installed officials said two missiles hit an industrial complex in Luhansk, Russian-occupied territory, about 100 km (60 miles) behind the front. A video posted on the Internet showed huge columns of smoke above the city. The strike, just beyond the range of the main battlefield rockets Ukraine has previously deployed, came a day after Britain announced it was sending longer-range cruise missiles.
The Ukrainian advance near Bakhmut appears to have started on Tuesday when a Ukrainian unit southwest of the town said it defeated a Russian brigade, recapturing a strip of land. Prigozhin also said that the Russian brigade fled.
Reuters was unable to independently verify the situation in the region.
Ukraine generally withholds any commentary on its offensive operations and omits them from its regular updates while they are ongoing; the military command said its troops advanced about 2 km (1.2 miles) near Bakhmut, but gave no details. In his Friday night report, he described fighting in Bakhmut and Russian shelling of nearby towns, but made no mention of a Russian advance or withdrawal.
Prigozhin, whose fighters fought to push Ukrainian forces out of the western outskirts of Bakhmut, said the northern and southern flanks, guarded by regular Russian troops, were collapsing. The Russian Defense Ministry denies this.
In his evening speech, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the Russians were “internally already ready for defeat”.
“They’ve already lost this war in their head. We have to pressure them every day to turn their feeling of defeat into their escape, their mistakes, their losses.”
In Kostiantynivka, about 20 km (12 miles) southwest of Bakhmut, firefighters were battling a fire in a house that caught fire after being hit by Russian shells.
“He hit the roof and the roof collapsed. My neighbor ran outside and started screaming, asking for help,” said Oleksandr Lazorka, who lives next door. “We pulled a blind woman – an elderly, blind woman – out of the rubble and then the fire broke out.”
Ukraine’s 15-month war is at a crossroads, after six months in which Kiev kept its troops on the defensive while Russia staged a winter campaign that resulted in Europe’s bloodiest ground combat since the World War II, but yielded little gain.
Since the beginning of this year, kyiv has received hundreds of new Western tanks and armored vehicles, holding them back in preparation for a counteroffensive to retake occupied territory.
Ukrainian officials have played down the suggestion that their offensive is already underway: Zelenskiy said in an interview this week that kyiv needed more time for the material to arrive. Prigozhin called this misleading and said Bakhmut’s advances represented the start of kyiv’s campaign.
Moscow has been preparing for an expected assault since last fall and has built lines of anti-tank fortifications over hundreds of kilometers of front.
It began evacuating civilians from areas close to the front line in the partially occupied Ukrainian province of Zaporizhzhia.
“We used to go out and watch (the shelling). Especially at night you could see the lightning when it was going off,” said Lyudmila, 22, from a makeshift accommodation in the Ukrainian port of Berdyansk under Russian control. “We had shells that landed nearby and when they landed the whole sky was red,” she said.