Russia May Risk Vuhledar Assault Despite Bakhmut Danger—U.K.

Russia may risk pursuing a fresh assault on the Vuhledar region in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk oblast, as clashes are intensifying in the battle for the war-ravaged city of Bakhmut, the British Ministry of Defence said.

In its latest assessment of the conflict in Ukraine, which hit the one-year mark on February 24, the ministry said that until recently, the Russian command likely saw a breakthrough at Vuhledar as "a key way to achieve an operationally significant breakthrough in Ukraine's lines."

A Ukrainian sniper outside of Bakhmut
A Ukrainian sniper with the 28th Brigade moves to a fighting position in a frontline trench facing Russian troops on March 05, 2023 outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine. Russian forces have been attacking Ukrainian troops as part of an offensive to encircle Bakhmut in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. John Moore/Getty Images

Vuhledar saw intense clashes in January and February as Russian troops attempted to seize the town, something that a Kremlin-appointed official has said may turn the war in Moscow's favor. Ukraine's military has said that Russian forces have lost dozens of armored vehicles in a failed attempt to take the eastern Ukrainian town.

"Russian planners are likely facing the dilemma of attempting another Vuhledar assault or supporting intense fighting further north near Bakhmut and Kremina," the U.K.'s defense ministry said Wednesday.

The ministry's assessment comes days after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced his troops would not withdraw from the fight for the industrial city of Bakhmut.

The city has been the scene of some of the most intense fighting since Russia launched its full-scale invasion just over a year ago. Clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces around Bakhmut have been increasing in ferocity as Moscow seeks to secure its first major battlefield victory since the summer of 2022.

In his nightly address on Monday, Zelensky said he had discussed Bakhmut with his top commanders and they had told him "not to withdraw," wanting instead to strengthen the city's defenses.

"The command unanimously supported this position. There were no other positions. I told the commander in chief to find the appropriate forces to help our guys in Bakhmut," Zelensky said.

Natia Seskuria, a Russia expert and associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute, told Newsweek that Bakhmut has a huge symbolic importance for both sides.

"On the one hand, the city has become a symbol of resistance for Ukraine. The Ukrainian Army has been fighting the longest battle for the city since the beginning of the war," she said.

"On the other hand, Russians have been unable to seize Bakhmut for months even though they have been throwing manpower and artillery to achieve victory. Nevertheless, they are experiencing significant losses especially as a result of deploying newly mobilized and poorly trained soldiers."

Yan Gagin, an adviser and spokesperson for the acting head of the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, was cited by Russian state-run news agency RIA Novosti on Tuesday as saying that Moscow's forces currently control nearly half of Bakhmut.


Denis Pushilin, Russia's leader in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, told RIA Novosti in late January that the capture of Vuhledar could radically change the balance of power on the Ukraine frontline.

Soon, Vuhledar "may become a new, very important success for us," he said at the time. "Taking control of this settlement will provide our troops with access to the Krasnoarmiysk (Pokrovsk) and Kurakhovskoye directions."

Ukrainian military reporter Yuri Butusov said on his Telegram channel in January that the coal-mining town is of "key importance" to Russia, as "it is a strategically important point of communications in the south of Donbas, a border for the deployment of the future Ukrainian offensive on the Crimean Corridor."

Its capture would "significantly improve the strategic position of the Russian army in the Donbas, and will allow the defense to be deepened," Butusov said, noting that Russia's war goals in 2023 will be to capture the entire Donbas region or push Ukraine's army away from the Crimean corridor.

The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S. think tank, assessed last month that President Vladimir Putin's forces had suffered "catastrophic casualties" around the Vuhledar region.

Russia's assault on Vuhledar reportedly stalled by the end of the first week of February.

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Source: Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project.

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