Russia’s pro-war bloggers were quick to claim that Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive had begun, but Ukrainian officials downplayed the advances.
By Marc Santora and Andrew E. Kramer
May 12, 2023
The New York Times
The Ukrainian Army is advancing in attacks near the eastern city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian commanders said on Friday, in fighting that has shifted the front line only slightly but is exposing fissures, confusion and alarm among Russia’s forces in the war.
Russia’s pro-war bloggers were quick to claim that Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive had begun, but Ukrainian officials downplayed the advances and described them in more local terms. Ukrainian soldiers broke through Russian lines south of Bakhmut on Wednesday, they said, and then exploited that breach, assaulting Russian forces near the city and threatening Russian flanks to the north and south. A video that appears to have been posted first by the Ukrainian news outlet Channel 24, which said it was provided by Ukraine’s 77th Airmobile Brigade, showed parts of northern Bakhmut on fire on Friday evening.
Bakhmut has been at the epicenter of the war in eastern Ukraine for months: a mostly ruined city where tens of thousands of soldiers are believed to have died, and the only place over hundreds of miles on the front where Russia was consistently on the attack. That changed this week, as Ukraine put Russian forces on the defensive, presenting them with a difficult strategic decision about reinforcing the city and setting off a new round of recriminations between Russian commanders.
Videos released on Friday by Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade showed soldiers piling out of armored personnel carriers and assaulting a Russian trench. “Forward, forward!” a soldier yelled in the video, filmed on a helmet camera. The soldiers dived for cover as Russian fighters threw a hand grenade, then ran forward and threw their own grenade into a Russian bunker. The video could not be independently verified.
“The defensive phase of the battle for Bakhmut is ending,” said Andriy Biletsky, who has ultimate command of the brigade, among other units in the Ukrainian Army. Now, he said, Ukraine would ramp up the pressure on the Russians from the north and south.
“We advanced a little more on our flank,” 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 to the south of Bakhmut, in which Russian soldiers tried to recapture a position but were repelled by a Ukrainian artillery bombardment.
Another Ukrainian soldier, who gave his call sign as Bandit, said that the artillery and rocket fire echoing around the hills near Bakhmut was “all our fire going to the Russian side.”
“We are still learning the enemy and want to see what he is doing in this situation,” he said, adding that Ukrainian soldiers were testing Russian positions and “clearing one forest belt after another.”
A retreat from Bakhmut, a city that lacks strategic importance but has become a symbolic prize, would represent an embarrassing setback for the Russian military. Russia has not captured a Ukrainian city since last July, and had pressed ahead into Bakhmut despite soaring losses.
It was difficult to gauge whether Ukraine’s advances would be sustained. Russian forces had at one point flushed Ukrainian troops out of all but a few city blocks.
Ukrainian advances this week have cut through Russian lines in the largest bulge by only about three miles, but the success erased what Moscow’s forces had painstakingly achieved over several months.
That presents Russia with a difficult choice. If Russia does not reinforce the flanking positions around Bakhmut, it risks a politically humiliating setback. But if it diverts reserve forces toward the city, it could weaken defenses in the south, where many analysts expect Ukraine to strike toward the Sea of Azov in an attempt to cut off a supply route to occupied Crimea.
Ukrainian officials have not portrayed the attacks as the start of a widely anticipated counteroffensive. President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an interview with the BBC this week, said Ukraine wanted more weaponry and ammunition to arrive before it would begin the offensive.
The stakes of Ukraine’s offensive extend to the country’s efforts to secure more aid: A military breakthrough could persuade Western officials to send even more matériel, while failure or stalemate could push them to curtail support or encourage negotiations. European foreign ministers urged China’s top diplomat this week to make Beijing do more to resolve the war, and China, which has cast itself as a potential mediator while giving Russia diplomatic and economic help, announced an envoy would visit Ukraine and Russia next week.
So Ukrainian leaders, keenly aware of their reliance on Western support, have taken pains to distinguish recent attacks from the broader offensive. The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, this week described Ukraine’s actions as mostly defensive, but said soldiers were able to “carry out effective counterattacks.”
“In some areas of the front, the enemy could not withstand the onslaught of the Ukrainian defenders and retreated to a distance of up to two kilometers,” he said in a statement.
But Russian military bloggers have responded with alarm to Kyiv’s gains near Bakhmut. The bloggers, who often report from the front and have links to various commanders or the Wagner mercenary group, are fiercely pro-war and can be influential within Russia, urging Moscow to commit more resources to the fight.
“Wagner gave a lot of blood and sweat for this territory, some gave their lives,” wrote Aleksandr Yaremchuk, a Russian military correspondent aligned with Wagner, whose fighters have led the nearly yearlong fight for Bakhmut. “It’s hard for me to believe that other units are so easily abandoning their positions.”
The outcry drew a rare acknowledgment by the Russian Ministry of Defense, which on Friday said its forces retreated in one area around Bakhmut.
The head of Wagner, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, appeared to support the bloggers’ assessment. On Thursday, he posted an open letter to Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, about the losses on the flanking positions, saying that “the enemy carried out several successful counterattacks.”
The flurry of posts, videos and statements also exposed tensions and rifts among Russia’s disparate forces in Ukraine. Mr. Prigozhin, long an aggressive 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 of Russia.
Cracks appeared elsewhere, too, as the Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov, whose paramilitary forces have fought alongside Wagner in Ukraine, criticized Mr. Prigozhin, his longtime ally, in a video broadside.
Some prominent Russian pro-war bloggers warned that the animosity was beginning to affect battlefield performance at a crucial moment.
“There is no single command that is respected without exception,” wrote one blogger, Anastasia Kashevarova. “We have a mass of people at the front, and no one can reach an agreement with each other.”
“The enemy,” she added, “is using this.”
Reporting was contributed by Anatoly Kurmanaev, Maria Varenikova, Riley Mellen, Ishaan Jhaveri and Dmitriy Khavin.
Marc Santora is the international news editor based in London, focusing on breaking news events. He was previously the bureau chief for East and Central Europe, based in Warsaw. He has also reported extensively from Iraq and Africa. @MarcSantoraNYT
Andrew E. Kramer is the Times bureau chief in Kyiv. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in International Reporting for a series on Russia’s covert projection of power. @AndrewKramerNYT