Front Line Shifts in Russia and Ukraine’s Battle for Bakhmut, Analysts Say

Ukraine insisted on Saturday that its forces were fending off relentless Russian attacks in Bakhmut, even as analysts said that Moscow’s forces had captured most of the embattled city’s east and established a new front line cutting through its center.

Gradual Russian advances and high Ukrainian casualties have fueled talk of a retreat from Bakhmut, a city in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that has been decimated by months of fighting. But Ukrainian officials say that Russian losses in Bakhmut are worse than their own and have signaled that they will pursue a strategy of bleeding the Russian Army before a planned Ukrainian counterattack.

Despite the Ukrainian military’s assertion that it was holding on in Bakhmut, it was becoming increasingly clear that its grip on the city was tenuous and that Russian forces were making new gains. Although Bakhmut’s strategic value is debatable, Moscow is looking for a victory after a series of setbacks and sees the city as a key step in its efforts to seize all of Donbas.

Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, said this past week that his fighters had seized the eastern half of Bakhmut — a claim that Ukraine’s military rejected at the time, saying that its soldiers were still fighting there.

But Britain’s defense intelligence agency said on Saturday that over the last four days Wagner fighters had “taken control” of most of the city’s east. The Bakhmutka River, which flows through the city’s center, now marks the front line and could stymie further Russian advances west, it added.

Recent satellite images showed that bridges across the Bakhmutka have been destroyed. Ukraine had earlier blown up pontoon crossings to prevent Russian advances over the river — and appeared to now be using it as a new defensive line, the British agency said.

“With Ukrainian units able to fire from fortified buildings to the west, this area has become a killing zone, likely making it highly challenging for Wagner forces attempting to continue their frontal assault westward,” it said, noting that Ukrainian forces were still vulnerable amid continued Russian efforts to encircle them.

That assessment was largely echoed by the Institute for the Study of War, a research group in Washington, which said in its latest update that Russian forces had “made gains” in Bakhmut and were clearing the eastern part of the city.

Ukraine’s military continued to strike a defiant tone on Saturday, saying in a statement on that its troops were “giving a decent rebuff” to Russian forces and “continuing to hold the city.” It said that the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, was at “the most important area” of the front line and taking the “necessary measures to keep Bakhmut under Ukrainian control.”

Rather than withdraw from the city, as had been rumored, President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that Ukraine would send reinforcements. That message was underscored late Friday when Mr. Zelensky again discussed Bakhmut “and our opportunities to strengthen there” with his military leadership, according to a statement from the presidency.

Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.