Ukraine pledged Monday to bolster its defenses in frontline Bakhmut after reports that Kyiv was withdrawing from the city that has become a symbolic prize in the war.
But Ukrainian forces fighting to retain control of the salt-mining town told AFP its capture by Russia was inevitable and that some units had already begun to pull back.
The eastern Ukrainian city has been badly damaged during the longest and bloodiest battle since Russia invaded more than a year ago.
Kyiv says the fighting is becoming increasingly difficult, and analysts say its forces may have initiated a strategic retreat.
But President Volodymyr Zelensky met with top commanders Monday and his office said they favored “continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.”
In his evening address, the president said he “told the Chief of Staff to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut.”
Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak also told AFP there was “consensus” within the military on the need to “continue defending” the city.
Neither side has said how many troops they have lost in the battle, with observers saying both Moscow and Kyiv are trying to exhaust each other.
Outside Bakhmut, some Ukrainian soldiers had lost hope that Kyiv would hold the city and looked set to retreat.
Near the town of Chasiv Yar, 10 kilometers (six miles) west of Bakhmut, one soldier said he came to repair his tank after a month of fighting.
“Bakhmut will fall,” he told AFP from the vehicle.
‘Retreating in Groups’
“We are almost encircled. The units are progressively retreating in small groups.”
He said the only path out of Bakhmut was over dirt roads that lead to Chasiv Yar. If tanks get bogged down there, he said, they could become a target for artillery fire.
But a senior Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that “considering the current positions” of Kyiv’s forces near Bakhmut, it is “impossible to besiege” the city.
The US-based Institute for the Study of War has said Ukrainian forces may have initiated a strategic retreat from the town.
“Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a limited tactical withdrawal in Bakhmut, although it is still too early to assess Ukrainian intentions concerning a complete withdrawal from the city,” it said in a recent analytical note.
The Ukrainian army said Sunday its troops had fought off “more than 130” Russian attacks in a single day around Bakhmut and said Moscow’s forces were trying to encircle the city.
Some 4,500 civilians remain in Bakhmut, Ukrainian officials have said.
In Chasiv Yar, an elderly woman named Antonina said she was scared but determined to stay in the village where she was born.
The 82-year-old said she survives on humanitarian aid and vegetables from her garden.
She said strikes were more intense at the end of last week.
Russia has appeared determined to take Bakhmut at all costs, despite analysts saying the city has little strategic value.
But there were signs that its forces too were exhausted and struggling.
As the fight rages, the head of Russia’s mercenary group Wagner that is spearheading the Bakhmut battle has complained his forces there lack ammunition.
Yevgeny Prigozhin alleged late Sunday that Russian reservists meant to deploy to Bakhmut had been diverted and that ammunition promised by the military was days late in arriving.
“We are trying to understand what the reasons are — the usual bureaucracy or betrayal,” Prigozhin said on social media.
Prigozhin, a Kremlin-linked businessman, has seen his influence balloon since Moscow’s offensive and has regularly criticized the Russian army.
Ukraine also faced new air attacks, with the air force saying it had shot down 13 explosive drones launched from southern Russia overnight.
The air force said on Telegram that Russian forces had launched 15 Iran-made Shahed drones, 13 of which Ukrainian forces shot down.
South of Bakhmut, Russia’s Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Mariupol, the port city that Moscow captured after a long siege last Spring.
Shoigu is one of the highest-ranking Russian officials to visit east Ukraine. He toured the destroyed city to oversee reconstruction efforts.
Mariupol, on the Azov Sea, fell to the Russian army last May and has since been largely cut off from outside scrutiny.
In Moscow, Russia’s FSB security service claimed it had thwarted an attempt to assassinate a controversial pro-Kremlin tycoon, Konstantin Malofeyev.
The FSB blamed a Russian-founded sabotage group that last week penetrated the country’s borders from Ukraine.
It alleged the plot was an “act of terror” that resembled that of the killing last August of Darya Dugina, the daughter of a far-right thinker and Kremlin supporter.