Ukrainian, Russian, and international sources have reported a withdrawal of Ukrainian forces from some areas of Bakhmut and partial Russian control of the city, suggesting that a battle which has raged for more than seven months with tens of thousands of casualties on both sides could be reaching a conclusion.
Open-source investigators geolocating footage from the frontline assess that Russian forces are advancing into the city from the north and east, with progress from the south disputed, as the remaining Ukrainian contingent risks encirclement.
US think tank Institute for the Study of War, which tracks battlefield developments, reported on Monday that “Ukrainian forces may be conducting a limited fighting withdrawal in Eastern Bakhmut…but it is still too early to assess Ukrainian intentions concerning a complete withdrawal from the city.”
Yuri Butusov, editor of Ukrainian news site Censor, reported: “The enemy has captured the eastern part of the city up to the Bakhmutka River…The fight is for the remaining supply route. This route is under enemy fire. The enemy is pushing our troops to leave Bakhmut, as there is a real threat of encirclement.”
“Some of our units have withdrawn,” Butusov acknowledged, but he added: “The enemy is advancing slowly, and the Ukrainian command is confident that it is still possible to hold the escape routes for some time, slowing down the pace of advance and inflicting even more losses on the Russians.”
Ukraine’s defence ministry gave a terse account of the situation on Monday, stating only that “the enemy continues to try to storm … Bakhmut and surrounding settlements.”
US defence secretary Lloyd Austin played down the importance of the fight for Bakhmut. “I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” he said on Monday. “The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight.”
Mr Austin did not comment on whether or when he expected the city to fall into Russian hands.
Russian military correspondent Alexander Kots published an account in newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda billed as “the first report from inside Bakhmut”, which claimed the city is largely under Russian control and that the invading troops were greeted with kisses from residents.
“Last week, operational encirclement of Bakhmut was formalised,” he wrote. “The enemy was left with only one supply road, and that one is under fire control. So Kyiv has begun to withdraw its units.”
But Yevgeny Progozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group that has led the assault on Bakhmut, gave a bleaker assessment of Russian prospects, warning that the invasion force was at risk of collapse. In a video published over the weekend, the warlord repeated a regular complaint that his units are being starved of ammunition by the Russian army.
“If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” Prigozhin said. “The situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests.”
Russian mobilised reservists have also complained of a lack of ammunition. The UK Ministry of Defence claimed that troops are even being forced to fight with shovels in hand-to-hand combat in its daily assessment of the fighting on Sunday.
International allies of Ukrainian have urged Kyiv to redirect focus from Bakhmut to plans for a counter-offensive in recent months as the battle became ever more costly in lives and resources.
Battlefield commanders told the Wall Street Journal that while Russian losses were higher, Ukraine was losing many of its best troops from elite units while the enemy was sacrificing prisoners.
But the city has gained symbolic importance over the seven-month defence, with “Bakhmut holds” becoming a popular Ukrainian phrase, making a withdrawal politically difficult.
President Volodymyr Zelensky took a flag from the city to Washington for his speech to Congress in December. Ukraine’s leader said last month that his troops would continue to defend the city but “not at any price.”
Both sides are believed to have suffered tens of thousands of casualties in fighting for Bakhmut, although no official figures have been provided. Recent aerial footage showed that much of the city has been obliterated.