Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits troops in the front-line city of Bakhmut on Dec. 20, 2022. Photo by the President of Ukraine website.
KYIV, Ukraine — In a daring visit to the war’s most intense battlefield, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the embattled city of Bakhmut on Tuesday, Dec. 20.
According to the Ukrainian president’s website, Zelenskyy visited a mechanized brigade defending one of the approaches to Bakhmut. After receiving a report from the brigade’s commander, the Ukrainian president presented awards to soldiers from various units and led a moment of silence in honor of the fallen.
"Our people, unconquered by the enemy, who, with their bravery, prove that we will endure and will not give up what’s ours. Ukraine is proud of you. Thank you for the courage, resilience, and strength shown in repelling the enemy attacks," Zelenskyy said during the front-line visit, according to Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, Thursday, Nov. 10, 2022. AP Photo/Libkos, File.
Nearly 10 months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, the battle for Bakhmut has become a bloody test of wills for both sides. Faced with Russian infantry attacks and punishing artillery barrages, the Ukrainians have held their ground. Even so, the battle has siphoned manpower and materiel that could be used to maintain Ukraine’s offensive momentum in other areas, following successful counteroffensives on the southern and eastern fronts over the past several months.
Still, many military experts are puzzled about Russia's rationale for dedicating a strategic amount of resources into taking a city that holds only tactical value in the war's overall trajectory.
“No one really understands the significance of Bakhmut,” Konrad Muzyka, the president of Rochan Consulting, a Polish defense consultancy, recently told The Moscow Times.
“No one can really explain… why Russians are fighting so ferociously for it," Muzyka said.
A local resident walks along a street in the area of the heaviest battles with the Russian invaders in Bakhmut, Ukraine, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022. AP Photo/Andriy Andriyenko.
In addition to wave-style infantry assaults reminiscent of Soviet charges in World War II, the Russian side has pummeled Bakhmut with artillery, inflicting catastrophic damage on the town, which counted a prewar population of around 70,000.
"Since May, the occupiers have been trying to break our Bakhmut, but time goes by and Bakhmut is breaking not only the Russian army, but also the Russian mercenaries who come to replace the wasted army of the occupiers,” Zelenskyy said Tuesday, referring to mercenaries from Russia’s Wagner Group, which have played a key role in the Bakhmut battle.
With its ranks primarily comprising released convicts, the Wagner Group is "serving a largely attritional role in operations near Bakhmut, failing to take significant ground but effectively pinning Ukrainian forces in the defense of surrounding territory," the Institute for the Study of War reported on Monday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits troops in the front-line city of Bakhmut on Dec. 20, 2022. Photo courtesy of the President of Ukraine website.
As a security precaution, Zelenskyy’s staff did not announce his presence in Bakhmut until after he’d departed.
Zelenskyy's front-line trip came one day after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Belarus to meet with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Putin’s visit, his first to Belarus in more than three years, followed recent warnings by Ukraine’s top military commanders that Russian forces may be regrouping for another offensive this winter, including a possible attack on Kyiv from Belarus.
Russian forces previously attacked Kyiv from Belarus in February, but retreated after just over a month of fierce combat.
Ukraine’s front-line troops must deal with the daily dangers of full-scale, conventional combat, as well as their worries about family members living in cities behind the front lines. For the past two months, Russia’s missile and drone strike campaign has cut off power, heating, and water supplies for millions of Ukrainians, creating a looming humanitarian disaster as frigid winter weather sets in.
"I think that the heroes of Bakhmut should have what every person has, that everything should be OK for their children, their families, that they're warm and healthy," Zelenskyy said Tuesday. "I'd like to wish them light, but it's such a difficult situation that there is light and then there isn't. The main thing is for there to be inner light."
Prior to the full-scale war, Zelenskyy visited Ukraine's eastern war zone multiple times. Following Russia's Feb. 24 invasion, the Ukrainian president made several more visits to front-line locations, including Kherson and Izyum.
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