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Ukraine vows to continue to defend Bakhmut as Wagner boss complains about ammunition

Ukrainian soldiers assigned to the Yavoriv Combat Training Center attend a Ukrainian Armed Forces Day ceremony Dec. 6, 2017. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Alexander Rector)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

A Ukrainian military commander has described “hellish” conditions in and around Bakhmut, but he and others vowed to continue the bloody fight for the eastern city, while Russia’s defense minister kept up a morale-building effort in the war zone and the head of the Wagner mercenary group stoked further tensions with Russian military commanders.

“The situation in Bakhmut and around it is utter hell, as it is on the entire eastern front,” Volodymyr Nazarenko, a commander of troops in Bakhmut, said in a Telegram video on March 6 amid reports that some Ukrainian forces were beginning tactical withdrawals from frontline positions.

Ukraine has vowed to continue to defend Bakhmut, which has endured months of brutal fighting that has inflicted heavy casualties on both sides.

AP reported that heavy shelling in the nearby towns of Chasiv Yar and Kostyantynivka sparked fires and damaged vehicles and houses.

The report said police and volunteers were helping to evacuate people from frontline areas but that damaged bridges and incessant Russian artillery fire made for perilous conditions.

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said that Ukrainian defensive efforts had substantially drained Russian military resources but that Kyiv’s forces may now be conducting a “gradual fighting withdrawal” from some positions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on March 6 discussed the situation in the besieged Donetsk region city with Valeriy Zaluzhniy, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Oleksandr Syrskiy, the commander of the ground forces, where “they spoke in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut,” according to the president’s website.

Zelenskiy has acknowledged in recent days that the battle for the eastern Donbas region is “painful and challenging” and the Ukrainian General Staff said in its regular battlefield update on March 6 that Russia was concentrating its main efforts on offensives in the areas around Bakhmut, Avdiyivka, Lyman, and Shakhtarsk in Donetsk, as well as farther north in Kupyansk, in the Kharkiv region.

It claimed to have fought off more than 95 enemy attacks in a handful of areas of the most intense fighting.

The enemy “is continuing its attempted assault on the town of Bakhmut and surrounding settlements,” the General Staff said, citing shelling in more than a dozen Donetsk municipalities.

The Ukrainian military said Russian forces were moving columns between the southeastern Kherson region and occupied Crimea “in order to mislead” the Ukrainian side.

It alleged that the feint was “causing discontent” among Russian personnel due to what it said was “a lack of a sufficient amount of fuel and even any hint of the effectiveness of such maneuvers.”

New signs of discord in Moscow emerged on March 6, with the boss of the Wagner private military group, which has spearheaded much of Russia’s attacks in the region, demanding more ammunition supplies while complaining one of his aides had been refused entry to the military’s operational headquarters.

“On March 5, I wrote a letter to the commander of the SMO grouping about the urgent need to allocate ammunition. On March 6, at 8 a.m., my representative at the headquarters had his pass cancelled and was denied access,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been demanding more ammunition for weeks, said via his press service on Telegram.

“For now, we are trying to figure out the reason: is it just ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal,” Prigozhin said, according to Reuters.

Prigozhin has repeatedly criticized Russian military commanders and routinely claims victories distinct from the efforts of regular army troops.

Prigozhin, long considered close to President Vladimir Putin, said a week ago that Russian fighters were closing their “pincers” around Bakhmut.

Reports of missteps and low morale have dogged Russia’s military from the early days of the unprovoked invasion.

RFE/RL cannot independently confirm casualty or battlefield developments claimed by either side in Russia’s yearlong full-scale war in Ukraine.

During a Middle East visit on March 6, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin downplayed Bakhmut’s significance, saying it was more “symbolic” than anything else while declining to suggest its eventual fall to Russian forces.

“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin said in Amman, Jordan, adding, “The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight.”

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appeared determined to project confidence in a purported visit to eastern Ukraine to meet with senior commanders and survey the situation that was shared in multiple Defense Ministry releases during the weekend and again on March 6.

The ministry said Shoigu had visited the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, which was captured last year after a long siege.