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Russia aims to capture Bakhmut, for its first important battlefield victory in months

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Ukrainian soldiers are hanging onto an eastern city that Russian forces have been trying to occupy for months.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Bakhmut is not a big city, around 75,000 people before the war drove many inhabitants away. Look at a map and you see why it has become a big focus. It's in eastern Ukraine in a region that Russia has been trying to dominate. Ukraine's armed forces are staying as long as they can.

MARTÍNEZ: Joining us now from the northeastern city of Kharkiv is NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis. Joanna, the focus on Bakhmut, why is it so important?

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: So - well, for the Russians, it would be their first significant victory in, like, seven or eight months. And, you know, Russian President Vladimir Putin really needs a victory at this point. Ukrainian forces have pushed the Russians out of areas they occupied early in the war, like parts of the Kharkiv region, where I am right now. And as for Ukrainians, Bakhmut has become a symbol of resistance against Russia, kind of like the city of Mariupol was in the early part of the war. And as this war drags on, the Ukrainians want to show that they will keep fighting for every inch of their land.

MARTÍNEZ: Joanna, can the Ukrainians hang onto this town? I mean, and why do they seem to want it so badly?

KAKISSIS: So based on the latest reports, it doesn't look good in Bakhmut for the Ukrainians. Right now, some reports suggest that Russian forces are even in parts of the city already. And these forces include members of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary army which operates alongside Russian military units. And they say Bakhmut is mostly surrounded. So we asked a Ukrainian military spokesman about these developments. His name is Serhii Cherevatyi. And he insists that these reports are, quote, "Russian propaganda."

SERHII CHEREVATYI: (Through interpreter) Russian propaganda is not reality. We are able to deliver ammunition, provisions and medicine to our units in Bakhmut and also take our wounded from Bakhmut.

KAKISSIS: He claims that Ukrainian soldiers are also exhausting the Russian forces in Bakhmut and depleting Russian stocks of ammunition and weapons. He would not confirm or deny that a couple of bridges have been blown up by the Ukrainians, which would indicate the beginning of a tactical withdrawal. But it is clear that the Ukrainians want to hang onto Bakhmut as long as possible so Russian forces pay as high a price as possible for as long as possible before Ukrainian soldiers are forced to abandon the city.

MARTÍNEZ: But, Joanna, I mean, after seven months of constant fighting, I mean, what's left in that city?

KAKISSIS: Yeah. There doesn't seem to be much left of Bakhmut at this point, at least based on videos posted to social media. Imagine block after block of shelled and collapsed buildings, of heaps of smoldering rubble. And yet, incredibly, A, about 10% of the population still remains in Bakhmut, hundreds of people. Many of them are older people, though there are some children with them. And they are huddled in basements without electricity or running water. We asked the military spokesman Serhii Cherevatyi about this. And he told us that by law, Ukrainian forces cannot make these civilians evacuate.

CHEREVATYI: (Through interpreter) We tell them that Russia is threatening you. But many people, especially those who are older, they are afraid of changing their surroundings. Maybe they think they will not be accepted anywhere else.

KAKISSIS: He says Ukrainian soldiers keep trying to remind these civilians that Bakhmut is the most dangerous place in the country right now.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kharkiv. Joanna, thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.