Vladimir Putin’s forces capturing Bakhmut will not ‘change the tide of this fight,’ says US Defence Secretary

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions near Bakhmut (AP)
Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions near Bakhmut (AP)

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that the fall of the eastern town of Bakhmut would not “change the tide of this fight” in favour of Russia.

Vladimir Putin’s troops were said to have almost encircled the town in the Donetsk province in the eastern Donbas region, with Ukraine now only able to re-supply their forces from a few roads from the west.

Volodymyr Nazarenko, a commander of Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut, said that there had been no order to retreat and “the defence is holding” in grim conditions amid some of the fiercest fighting so far in the war.

“The situation in Bakhmut and around it is very much hell-like, as it is on the entire eastern front,” he said in a video posted on Telegram.

Ukraine’s military said early on Monday its forces had repelled 95 Russian attacks in the Bakhmut area over the previous day.

“The situation in Bakhmut can be described as critical,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said in a video commentary.

Western officials believe that Ukrainian forces will eventually have to retreat but they have so far inflicted very heavy losses on soldiers from Putin’s “private army”, the Wagner Group, and regular Russian troops.

“The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” said Mr Austin on a visit to Jordan.

"I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value.”

A Russian victory in Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of about 70,000, would give it the first major prize in a costly winter offensive, after it called up hundreds of thousands of reservists last year.

But Russian losses were said by some experts to running at seven to one compared to the Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut.

The founder of Russia's Wagner mercenary force said his troops now tightening their grip on Bakhmut were being deprived of ammunition and that, if they are forced to retreat, the entire front will collapse.

Yevgeny Prigozhin had said on Friday that his units had "practically surrounded Bakhmut", where fighting has intensified in the past week after months of attritional warfare, with Russian forces attacking from three sides.

In a video published over the weekend, Prigozhin complained that the ammunition that Moscow had promised his group had not been delivered.

"If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse," he said.

"The situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests."

Prigozhin regularly criticises the Russian military hierarchy and last month accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and others of "treason" for withholding munitions.

The Defence Ministry in Moscow said last month it was "absolutely untrue" that Wagner was being starved of ammunition.