The battle for Bakhmut continues to shift in Ukraine’s favour, with Kyiv announcing further territorial gains and western analysts saying they have managed to “seize the tactical initiative.”

What’s the latest on the ground? 

According to Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Malyar, Kyiv’s forces on Thursday repelled a number of Russian attacks and advanced as much as 1km in some areas.

In a post on Telegram, she wrote: “The enemy attacked Bakhmut all day today. All attacks were repelled by our defenders. We currently control the southwestern part of Bakhmut.

“The enemy also attacked the outskirts north of Bakhmut. Attacks repulsed. In some areas, there is an advance of our troops by 500 meters. Fierce fighting continued throughout the day in the southern suburb of Bakhmut.

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“The enemy went on the offensive and tried to regain the lost territories, but suffered losses and was unable to complete its tasks. In some areas, our troops advanced by 1 km.”

The claims come a day after Ukraine said its forces had “penetrated up to 500 meters in some areas” around the city.

Do we know which units are making advances?

We know that the 3rd Separate Assault Infantry Brigade is incredibly active in the area around Bakhmut and numerous videos of them fighting there have been posted on social media over the last few days.

The 3rd Separate Assault Infantry Brigade began the war in Kyiv, when recruitment offices in the capital were overwhelmed with reservists wanting to get to assigned to a regular unit, so many of them joined the territorial defense battalions which were being frantically formed in an attempt to hold back the Russian armored columns closing in on the city.

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Equipped with little more than Kalashnikov rifles and Molotov cocktails then, the 3rd Assault is now heavily armed with captured Russian Soviet era artillery, NATO-donated anti-tank missiles, mortars, M-113 tracked armored vehicles, and the ubiquitous US-made HUMMV all-purpose vehicles mounted with venerable, but still effective, “Ma Deuce” .50 machine guns.

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The 3rd fought for months in the southern sector and its reconnaissance patrols were among the very first Ukrainian units to enter and liberate the city of Kherson, in November 2022. On May 9, reports surfaced of an outright tactical defeat of Russia’s 72nd Motor Rifle Brigade by elements from the 2nd Battalion, 3rd Assault Brigade, in combined arms attacks on Russian positions to the southwest of Bakhmut.

Kyiv has previously said it is attempting to draw Russian forces into the city, weakening Russia’s frontlines ahead of the long-awaited counteroffensive.

 "Wagner troops climbed into Bakhmut like rats into a mousetrap," Oleksander Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine's ground forces, said earlier this week.

“Using the principle of active defense, we resort to counteroffensive actions in some directions near Bakhmut. The enemy has more resources, but we are destroying his plans.”

What are the Russians saying?

On the ground, the Wagner group is supported by the regular Russian army, although Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, has regularly accused the military leadership of not giving his men enough ammunition to capture the city.

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Prigozhin paints a grim picture of the situation facing his troops by, once again, accusing regular Russian army units of retreating and saying he had no chance of taking the city in the coming days on Thursday May 18.

"Unfortunately, units of the Russian Defense Ministry have withdrawn up to 570 meters (1,880 feet) to the north of Bakhmut, exposing our flanks," he said in a voice message.

"I am appealing to the top leadership of the [Russian] Ministry of Defense - publicly - because my letters are not being read – please do not give up the flanks."

In another post on social media, later on Thursday, Prigozhin said Bakhmut “is unlikely to be completely taken [by Russian forces] tomorrow or the day after tomorrow.

"Bakhmut has not yet been taken. There is a suburb called 'samolet'. It is an impregnable fortress formed from a range of apartment blocks, located in the south-west of Bakhmut.

“The toughest battles are going on there right now."

These comments came a day after he said that “surrounding the enemy does not appear to be possible.”

The Russian defense ministry has acknowledged some withdrawals from positions near Bakhmut in the last few days.

This sounds very good for Ukraine – has any of it been confirmed elsewhere?

 In its daily assessment on Thursday, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) said Ukrainian forces “have seized the tactical initiative and made tactically significant gains around Bakhmut in counter-attack operations on May 18.”

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Confirming the Ukrainian account of events, the ISW noted that multiple Russian ‘milbloggers’ “claimed that Ukrainian forces drove through the Russian defensive lines south and southwest of Ivanivske (6km west of Bakhmut) and northwest of Klishchiivka (6km southwest of Bakhmut) from the northwest.”

Observers still cast doubt on any strategic significance through the capture of Bakhmut, but it would allow Moscow to claim victory after several humiliating setbacks and, for much the same reason, holding on to (at least part of) the city has become a talisman for certain victory for Ukraine.

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