KYIV, Feb. 27 (Reuters) – The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, visited besieged Bakhmut to boost morale and speak with units defending the city and surrounding villages in eastern Ukraine, it said army over the weekend.
Military analysts expect Ukrainian forces to devote their “maximum effort” in the coming days to defending Bakhmut, which has seen some of the bloodiest fighting of Russia’s years of invasion in recent months.
Russia has made the capture of Bakhmut a priority in its strategy to take control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas industrial region.
“(Syrskyi) listened to the unit commanders addressing urgent issues, provided assistance in resolving them and supported the military,” the ground forces said in the Telegram messaging app.
The 57-year-old commander, one of Ukraine’s most experienced commanders, is believed to have masterminded the defeat of Russian forces as they advanced to Kiev at the start of the war and into the Kharkov region in September.
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Syrskyi, now in charge of Bakhmut’s defense, has made a number of trips to the city to ensure Kiev’s troops will hold it.
“A well thought-out system of technical barriers, combined with a natural (hilly) landscape, has turned the area into a real impregnable fortress, on the walls of which not only a thousand enemies had died,” Syrskyi said in early February.
Russia had recently made progress in encircling Bakhmut, where only about 5,000 of its 70,000 inhabitants remain, but the failure to take the city deprived Russian President Vladimir Putin of the chance to declare victory over the first anniversary of his invasion on Friday, February 24.
Over the weekend, Ukrainian forces launched a number of counter-attacks and repulsed Russian forces around the village of Yahidne, after the Russian Wagner mercenary group claimed to have captured Berkhivka village and village.
Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday that its forces destroyed Ukrainian “sabotage and reconnaissance groups” including in the area of Yahidne, while Russia’s state agency TASS reported that Ukrainian forces blew up a dam just north of Bakhmut.
Reuters could not independently verify the reports.
The fierce fighting along the front lines in southern and eastern Ukraine, especially near Bakhmut, now consists of crawling attempts by both sides to move the line, sometimes only a few yards at a time.
The weekend’s Ukrainian counterattacks north of Bakhmut helped stabilize the front there, military analysts said. But Moscow has been constantly deploying new troops and equipment.
“Russia can attack from three sides from Monday,” Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said in a video posted on social media. “Ukraine is doing everything it can to detain Bakhmut.”
Putin invaded Ukraine, claiming it was necessary to protect Russian sovereignty, but Ukraine and its allies in the West say it was nothing more than an unprovoked land grab.
Reporting by Oleksandr Kozhukhar; Written by Lidia Kelly in Melbourne; Edited by Michael Perry
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