KYIV (Reuters) – The commander of Ukrainian ground forces Colonel general Oleksandr Syrskyi visited besieged Bakhmut to boost morale and talk strategy with units defending the town and surrounding villages in eastern Ukraine, the military said over the weekend.
Military analysts expect that Ukraine’s forces will put their “maximum effort” in coming days into defending Bakhmut, which in recent months has seen some of the bloodiest attritional fighting of Russia’s year-old invasion.
Russia has made the capture Bakhmut a priority in its strategy to take control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas industrial region.
“(Syrskyi) listened to the unit commanders tackling urgent problems, provided assistance in solving them, and supported the servicemen,” the Ground Forces said on the Telegram messaging app.
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The 57-year-old commander, one of Ukraine’s most experienced, has been regarded as the mastermind behind the defeat of Russian forces as they advanced on Kyiv early in the war and in the Kharkiv region in September.
Now charged with the defence of Bakhmut, Syrskyi has made a number of trips to the town, maintaining the Kyiv’s forces will hold it.
“A thoughtful system of engineering barriers, combined with a natural (hilly) landscape, has turned the area into a true impregnable fortress, at the walls of which not just a thousand of enemies had found death,” Syrskyi said in early February.
Russia had made recent progress towards encircling Bakhmut, where only about 5,000 of 70,000 residents remain, but its failure to capture the town, deprived Russian President Vladimir Putin of the chance to declare a victory on Friday’s first anniversary of his invasion Feb. 24.
Over the weekend, Ukrainian forces launched a number of counter-attacks and repulsed Russian forces around the village of Yahidne, after Russia’s Wagner mercenary group claimed to have captured it and the village of Berkhivka.
The Russian defence ministry said on Sunday that its forces have destroyed Ukrainian “sabotage and reconnaissance groups,” including in the area of Yahidne, while Russia’s TASS state agency reported that Ukraine’s forces blew up a dam just north of Bakhmut.
Reuters was not able to independently verify the reports.
The fierce battles along the front lines in Ukraine’s south and east, especially near Bakhmut, now consist of crawling attempts by each side to move the line, sometimes just a few metres at a time.
The weekend Ukrainian counter-attacks to the north of Bakhmut have helped to stabilise the front there, military analysts said. But Moscow has been continuously throwing in new troops and equipment.
“Russia may start attacking from three sides from Monday,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said in a social media video. “Ukraine puts maximum effort into holding Bakhmut.”
Putin invaded Ukraine claiming it was necessary to protect Russian sovereignty, but Ukraine and its allies in the West say it was nothing more than an unprovoked land grab.
(Reporting by Oleksandr Kozhukhar; Writing by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Editing by Michael Perry)
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