Ukraine official: Forces may pull out of key city of Bakhmut

Local residents talk against the background of a building burning after the Russian shelling in the town of Chasiv Yar, the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Yevhen Titov)
Local residents talk against the background of a building burning after the Russian shelling in the town of Chasiv Yar, the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Yevhen Titov)

By SUSIE BLANN

Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) -- The Ukrainian military might pull troops back from the key stronghold of Bakhmut, an adviser to Ukraine's president said Wednesday in remarks that suggested Russia could capture the city that has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Kremlin forces have waged a bloody, monthslong offensive to take Bakhmut, a city of salt and gypsum mines in eastern Ukraine that has become a ghost town.

"Our military is obviously going to weigh all of the options. So far, they've held the city, but if need be, they will strategically pull back," Alexander Rodnyansky, an economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, told CNN. "We're not going to sacrifice all of our people just for nothing."

The battle for Bakhmut has come to embody Ukraine's determination as the city's defenders hold out against relentless shelling and Russian troops suffer heavy casualties.

Bakhmut lies in Donetsk province, one of four provinces Russia illegally annexed last fall. Moscow controls half of Donetsk province. To take the remaining half of that province, Russian forces must go through Bakhmut, the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities since Ukrainian troops took back Izium in Kharkiv province in September.

Analysts say the fall of Bakhmut would be a blow for Ukraine and offer tactical advantages to Russia, but would not prove decisive to the war's outcome.

Bakhmut is now partly encircled, and all roads, including the main supply route, are within range of Russian fire, Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. The city lies in ruins and "no longer has strategic or operational significance."

"In Bakhmut, the Russians lost so many forces -- soldiers and equipment -- that this city has already fulfilled its function," Zhdanov said.

Recent drone footage showed the scale of devastation in the city, and Zelenskyy has described it as "destroyed."

Since invading Ukraine a year ago, Russia has bombarded various cities and towns it wanted to occupy. It also targeted Ukraine's power supply with missile strikes ahead of winter in an apparent attempt to weaken residents' morale.

Meanwhile, one of Zelenskyy's top advisers, Mykhailo Podolyak, denied on Wednesday that Ukraine had used drones to attack Russian territory following official Russian statements that Ukraine had targeted infrastructure deep inside Russia.

"Ukraine does not strike on the territory of the Russian Federation. Ukraine is waging a defensive war with the aim of de-occupying all its territories," Podolyak wrote on Twitter, suggesting the targeting of Russian infrastructure was the result of "internal attacks."

Ukraine's Western allies have discouraged Ukraine from attacking targets in Russia to avoid escalation of the conflict, and Podolyak's statement could reflect an attempt by Kyiv to maintain a degree of deniability in view of those Western concerns.

In the past, Ukrainian officials have stopped short of claiming responsibility for attacks in Russia, but also insisted that they have the right to strike any target in Russian territory in response to its aggression.

Asked about Podolyak's denial, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, "We don't believe it."

In other developments, the Ukrainian president's office reported that at least nine civilians were killed and 12 others wounded.