Ukrainian Advances Near Bakhmut Exposes Splits in Russian Troops

The Ukrainian Army advanced in an offensive near the eastern town of Bakhmut, Ukrainian commanders said Friday, in a battle that has only shifted the front line slightly but exposed gaps, confusion and wariness among Russian troops in the war.

Russian pro-war bloggers were quick to claim that Ukraine's long-anticipated counteroffensive had begun, but Ukrainian officials downplayed the progress and described it in more local terms. Ukrainian troops broke through Russian lines south of Bakhmut on Wednesday, they said, and then exploited the breach, attacking Russian troops near the town and threatening the Russian flanks to the north and south. A videos which was apparently first posted by Ukrainian news outlet Channel 24, which said it was provided by Ukraine's 77th Brigade, shows the northern part of Bakhmut burning Friday night.

Bakhmut has been at the epicenter of the war in eastern Ukraine for months: a largely destroyed city where tens of thousands of soldiers are believed to have died, and the only place within hundreds of miles on the front where Russia has consistently attacked. That changed this week, as Ukraine put Russian troops on the defensive, giving them a tough strategic decision about fortifying the city and starting a new round of recriminations between Russian commanders.

The video was released on Friday by Ukraine's 3rd Separate Assault Brigade shows soldiers piling up from an armored personnel carrier and attacked the Russian trenches. “Forward, forward!” one soldier shouted in the video, recorded by a helmet camera. The soldiers dived for cover as the Russian fighters threw hand grenades, then dashed forward and threw their own grenades into the Russian bunkers. The video cannot be independently verified.

“The battle defense phase for Bakhmut is over,” said Andriy Biletsky, who has supreme command of the brigade, among other units in the Ukrainian Army. Now, he said, Ukraine will increase pressure on Russia from the north and south.

“We're advancing a little further on our flanks,” said a drone operator in the Adam Tactical Group, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Sem. In an interview on Friday, he described an overnight seesaw battle south of Bakhmut, where Russian troops tried to retake positions but were repulsed by Ukrainian artillery bombardment.

Another Ukrainian soldier, who gave his callsign as Bandit, said that the artillery and rocket fire that echoed around the hills near Bakhmut was “all our fire on the Russian side”.

“We are still studying the enemy and want to see what he does in this situation,” he said, adding that the Ukrainian army was testing Russian positions and “clearing one belt of forest after another.”

Retreating from Bakhmut, a city of no strategic importance but which has become a symbolic gift, would be an embarrassing setback for the Russian military. The Russians haven't captured the Ukrainian town since last July, and are continuing to advance on Bakhmut despite soaring losses.

It is difficult to gauge whether Ukraine's progress will be sustained. Russian troops had at one point driven Ukrainian troops out of all but a few city blocks.

This week's Ukrainian advance had cut Russian lines at the biggest salient by just over three miles, but the gains erased what Moscow's forces had painstakingly achieved for months.

That presents Russia with a tough choice. If Russia does not strengthen its flanking position around Bakhmut, it risks an embarrassing setback politically. But diverting reserves to the city could weaken the defenses in the south, where many analysts expect Ukraine to strike towards the Sea of ​​Azov in an attempt to cut off supply routes to occupied Crimea.

Ukrainian officials have not described the attack as the start of a widely anticipated counteroffensive. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview with the BBC this week, said Ukraine wanted more arms and ammunition to arrive before starting an offensive.

The stakes of the Ukrainian offensive extend to the country's quest for more aid: A military breakthrough may persuade Western officials to send more material, while failure or stalemate may prompt them to curtail support or push for negotiations. European foreign ministers urged China's top diplomat this week to get Beijing to do more to end the war, and China, which has established itself as a potential mediator while providing diplomatic and economic aid to Russia, announced an envoy would visit Ukraine and Russia next week.

So Ukraine's leaders, keenly aware of their reliance on Western support, have taken great pains to distinguish the recent attacks from the broader ones. The commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, General Oleksandr Syrsky, this week described Ukraine's actions as largely defensive, but said the army could “launch an effective counterattack.”

“In some areas of the front, the enemy was unable to withstand the onslaught of the Ukrainian defenders and withdrew to a distance of two kilometers,” he said in a statement.

But Russian military bloggers have responded warily to Kyiv's gains near Bakhmut. The bloggers, who frequently report from the front and have ties to various commanders or Wagner mercenary groups, are staunchly pro-war and can be influential in Russia, urging Moscow to devote more resources to the battle.

“Wagner gave a lot of blood and sweat for this region, some gave their lives,” wrote Aleksandr Yaremchuk, a Russian military correspondent allied with Wagner, whose fighters have led Bakhmut's cause for nearly a year. “It's hard for me to believe that other units easily left their positions.”

The shouts received rare acknowledgment from Russia's Defense Ministry, which said Friday its troops were retreating in an area around Bakhmut.

The chairman of Wagner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, seemed to support the bloggers' assessment. On Thursday, he posted an open letter to Russia's defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, about the defeat on the flanks, saying that “the enemy carried out several successful counterattacks.”

The numerous posts, videos and statements also reveal tensions and rifts between the different Russian powers in Ukraine. Mr Prigozhin, a longtime critic of Mr Shoigu and other top defense officials, this week issued a series of expletive-laden audio and video messages, including with comments that some observers interpreted as his first direct criticism of President Vladimir V. Putin's Russia.

Cracks appeared elsewhere, too, when Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, whose paramilitary forces had fought alongside Wagner in Ukraine, criticized Prigozhin, his old ally, in a video.

Several prominent Russian pro-war bloggers warn that the hostilities are starting to affect battlefield performance at a crucial moment.

“No single commandment is honored without exception,” wrote one blogger, Anastasia Kashevarova. “We have a lot of people at the front, and no one can come to an agreement with each other.”

“The enemy,” he added, “is using this.”

Reporting contributed by Anatoly Kurmanaev, Maria Varenikova, Riley Mellen, Ishaan Jhaveri And Dmitry Khavin.