In recent comments to the international media, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned that control of the frontline city of Bakhmut hangs in the balance and its loss would be a military disaster for Kyiv.

Bakhmut, is a city in the Donbas region, with a pre-war population of around 70,000. Ukrainian forces defending the city have been under almost continuous, grinding Russian army assault since August.

In an exclusive Mar. 7 interview, with the US channel CNN, Zelensky said Russian troops would have an “open road” to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine if they seize control of Bakhmut, saying: “We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction. That’s why our guys are standing there,”

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Leading American and British observers, including the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which in its Mar. 8 update questioned the President’s appraisal, saying “ISW continues to assess, that Russian forces lack the capability to exploit the tactical capture of Bakhmut to generate operational effects, which will likely rapidly culminate following the capture of Bakhmut.”

Wagner mercenary group has been leading the infantry-intensive and often bloody assaults against Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) positions since December. Evgeny Prigozhin, head of the group, claimed in a Mar. 7 statement that his forces had captured “the eastern half of Bakhmut”, but that fierce Ukrainian resistance was continuing.

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Ukrainian official and civil society sources, including some soldiers posting comment from the front line, confirmed AFU retreat from some sections of Bakhmut. Most said Ukrainian troops were conducting fighting withdrawals to pre-prepared positions.   

A former personal chef to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Prigozhin continued with his repeated accusations that personal enemies within the Russian army leadership were failing to supply his units with sufficient artillery ammunition, which might force an end to all Russian attacks.

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A Mar. 6 Intelligence Update from the British Defense Ministry said disagreements between the Wagner Group and Russian Ministry of Defense over the allocation of munitions for attacks “highlights the difficulty in sustaining the high levels of personnel and ammunition required to advance with their current tactics."

The official British Mar. 7 situation estimate said that failure of Russian forces to advance significantly in the Vuhledar sector, to the south of Bakhmut, will place Russian planners with “the dilemma of attempting another Vuhledar assault or supporting intense fighting further north (in Bakhmut).”

Regular Russian army tank and mechanized infantry troops in early February kicked off massed ground assaults on Vuhledar in early February. By most accounts, deeply-entrenched AFU units used artillery, long-range missile and tank fire to decimate Russian attacks often forcing them to move into areas that contained anti-vehicle minefields.

The Russian army’s failure at Vuhledar has made resulted in the capture of Bakhmut becoming a top propaganda priority for the Kremlin, Zelensky said. “They want to stick their little [Russian national] flag up there,” he said.

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Zelensky and representatives of Ukraine’s Army General Staff (AGS) have repeatedly stated that Kyiv’s strategy in Bakhmut is to inflict maximum casualties on Russian attackers while yielding minimal ground, avoiding encirclement and heavy loss of Ukrainian troops.

The Ukrainian leader’s comments to CNN that a Ukrainian defeat in Bakhmut would have far-reaching effects on Kyiv’s ability to resist Russian pressure was, possibly, a public departure from the declared strategy, by effectively declaring continued AFU control of Bakhmut was not just desirable, but critical.

Zelensky however repeated to CNN he wanted the AFU to maintain the principle of protecting soldier lives as a top priority, and that his generals were operating under orders to avoid mass losses.

“We have to think about our people first and no one should be surrounded, encircled – this is very important,” Zelensky said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned Wednesday that Bakhmut may fall into Russian hands no matter how hard the Ukrainians try to hold it.

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“What we see is that Russia is throwing more troops, more forces and what Russia lacks in quality they try to make up in quantity,” Stoltenberg said, according to an AFP report.

"They have suffered big losses, but at the same time, we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days. Were Ukraine to lose Bakhmut it would not necessarily reflect any turning point of the war (but) just highlight that we should not underestimate Russia," he said.

"We must continue to provide support to Ukraine,” he said

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