KYIV, Ukraine — The top commander of Ukraine’s military said Saturday that his forces were pushing back against Russian troops in the long and grinding battle for the town of Bakhmut, and British military intelligence says Russia appears to be moving to a defensive strategy in eastern Ukraine.
“The Bakhmut direction is the most difficult. Thanks to the titanic efforts of the defense forces, the situation is being stabilized,” Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi said in a post on Telegram giving a synopsis of a telephone call with Adm. Sir Tony Radakin, Britain’s chief of defense staff.
The seven-month fight for Bakhmut, where Russian forces have closed in on three sides, is the longest battle of the war, with Russia deploying both regular soldiers and fighters of the mercenary Wagner Group.
Russian forces must go through Bakhmut to push deeper into parts of the eastern Donbas region, though Western officials say the capture of the city would have limited impact on the course of the war.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said in its latest intelligence update that “Russia’s assault on the Donbas town of Bakhmut has largely stalled. This is likely primarily a result of extreme attrition of the Russian force.”
Russia is likely shifting its focus toward two other sectors, which “suggests an overall return to a more defensive operational design after inconclusive results from its attempts to conduct a general offensive since January,” the U.K. ministry wrote on Twitter.
However, the Ukrainian military cautioned that a change in strategy was not yet clear and that Bakhmut remained Russia’s main point of attack for now. A spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces, Serhii Cherevaty, said the Russian forces were still hitting the town with artillery and airstrikes, although the number of daily clashes had dropped to fewer than 20, down from 30 to 50 not long ago.
“The coming week will tell,” Cherevaty said on Ukrainian television.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of Donetsk province, where Bakhmut is located, said one civilian was killed in the fighting on Friday and another civilian was killed elsewhere in the province. Russian rockets hit the town of Kramatorsk during the night, but caused no injuries, Kyrylenko said.
On Saturday, Russian artillery struck Chasiv Yar, a city west of Bakhmut, and Toretsk to the south, killing two civilians, the Ukrainian presidential office said.
Two people were killed and six injured in Russian firing on the southern Kherson region, the local administration said.