Zelensky warns of a “free way” if Russia takes control of Bakhmut

(CNN) — Russian troops will have a “free hand” to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine if they take control of Bakhmut, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN, as he defended his decision to keep Ukrainian forces in the besieged city

“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky said, insisting that Kyiv’s military leadership is united in prolonging its defense of the city after weeks of Russian attacks left it on the brink of falling into the hands of Moscow troops.

“We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be an open path for the Russians after Bakhmut to other cities in Ukraine, in the direction of Donetsk,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. in an exclusive interview from Kyiv. “That’s why our men are there.”

A weeks-long assault by troops of Wagner fighters, which has accelerated in recent days, has forced thousands of people to flee the city and decimated its infrastructure. But Ukrainian troops have also mounted a tenacious defense of the area, holding back the Russian advance.

Zelensky said his motivations for holding the city are “very different” from Russia’s goals.

“We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least some victory — a small victory — even ruining everything in Bakhmut, just killing all the civilians there,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky said that if Russia is able to “put their little flag” on top of Bakhmut, it would help “mobilize their society to create this idea that they are such a powerful army.”

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer at Russian positions near Bakhmut as the battle for the city intensifies. Credit: Libkos/AP

Although Bakhmut is not of significant strategic value in itself, its road links to Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, two densely populated and industrial urban centers to the northwest, mean those cities will be next in Russia’s crosshairs if they are able to take the control.

Some commanders and lower-ranking officers have questioned the wisdom of holding Bakhmut amid mounting casualties and a growing risk of hundreds or even thousands of Ukrainian troops being cut off.

But Zelensky dismissed those concerns, saying he has “never heard anything like it” from his commanders.

“We have to think about our people first and no one should be surrounded, fenced off, this is very important,” he said.

“The military sees for themselves that we have to stay strong there even though Russia ruined the whole city and everything there,” Zelensky added. “The troops were helping the children, the civilians to leave the city, even until today people were leaving Bakhmut. We were helping everyone.”

Nearly 4,000 civilians — including 38 children — remain inside the besieged city, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said elsewhere on Tuesday. “We have special evacuation teams, which help, and armored vehicles. But often people stay in basements, leaving no information about their whereabouts,” she said in a televised address. “This makes evacuation much more difficult.”

Meanwhile, NATO intelligence services estimate that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Bakhmut, Russian forces have lost at least five, an alliance military official told CNN on Monday. The official cautioned that the 5-to-1 ratio was an estimate based on intelligence information.

Wagner’s troops have been descending on the city since they captured the town of Soledar in January. Should they gain control of Bakhmut, it would be a rare case of change of hands in what has become a slow war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

An adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, Mykhailo Podolyak, told CNN on Monday that Ukraine had two main goals in defending Bakhmut: buying time to replenish its forces and inflicting heavy losses on the Russian armies.

“He achieved his goals by 1,000%,” he said. “Even if the military leadership decides at some point to withdraw to more favorable positions, the case for the defense of Bakhmut will be a great strategic success for the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a basis for future victories.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine is rushing to integrate Western weapon systems and dozens of tanks into its operations, after Zelensky managed to persuade the United States, Britain, Germany and a bloc of other European nations to increase their military aid.

These moves come ahead of an expected Russian spring offensive that could encompass territory in central and northern Ukraine that Russia failed to capture in its initial invasion last year.

— CNN’s Tim Lister, Olga Voitovych and Vasco Cotovio contributed to this report.

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