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Ukraine and Russia in war of words with claims of frontline gains in Bakhmut, says expert

A war of words has erupted over Ukraine’s frontline advances with Kyiv saying it has recaptured ground in the eastern city of Bakhmut, while Russia has denied the claims, saying its troops have regrouped in one area.

While there is a lot of misinformation and contradictory statements flying around, for Ukraine, appearances and symbolism are the most important thing at this crucial point, an expert told i.

“Warfare is like sport – a lot of it is about momentum and morale and that sense of who is putting who under pressure,” said professor Michael Clarke, former director general of the Royal United Services Institute.

“When momentum turns in battle or in warfare, it tends to turn quite decisively. Very often, forces that are technically stronger collapse in front of weaker forces because their morale has gone and they just don’t believe they’re going to win.

“That’s what the Ukrainians will be hoping to create.”

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, has said Ukrainian forces advanced two kilometres (1.2 miles) in a week. But Russia has denied the Ukrainian claims and says its troops have regrouped in the Maloilinivka area north-west of Bakhmut.

DONETSK, UKRAINE - MAY 11: An Ukrainian soldier controls flying drone at training camp amid Russia-Ukraine war in Donetsk, Ukraine on May 11, 2023. The country's most intense clashes continue in Donetsk. (Photo by Vincenzo Circosta/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
A Ukrainian soldier flying a drone at training camp in Donetsk, where Kyiv’s and Moscow’s forces are battling for control of Bakhmut (Photo: Vincenzo Circosta/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Russian forces have taken up a better defensive position in the Maloilinivka area “taking into account the favourable conditions of the Berkhivka reservoir”, Russia’s defence ministry has said.

However, the head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said Moscow’s forces were “fleeing” as opposed to “regrouping”.

In a post on Telegram, Ms Malyar said Bakhmut has become a target of “almost sacred” importance to Russia and claimed Moscow has suffered significant troop losses, as Ukraine gained ground without losing any positions.

“There is a lot of misinformation and contradictory statements being made,” said professor Clarke, who is associate director of the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute.

“The Wagner Group on Telegram are saying the Ukrainians have made advances while the Kremlin are saying, no, there have been some attacks, but they haven’t made any advances.

“The fact they don’t agree is interesting in itself. The confirmed view is that there have certainly been Ukrainian attacks from the north-west and the south-west of the city, and a pretty big attack has gone on at Soledar, about 10km away to the north-east of Bakhmut.

“Those attacks are certainly going forward, but we don’t know yet how successful they’ve been or how much penetration has been made.”

With Bakhmut now a shell of a city, abandoned and destroyed, professor Clarke says the big question is why are the Ukrainians doing this – and says he feels it is more about appearances and symbolism. He believes they want to make Russians “look like losers” to the rest of the world.

He added: “Bakhmut has never been strategically important as it doesn’t occupy an important place. The Russians made it important when the first shells fell on Bakhmut on 17 May, 2022 – almost exactly one year ago – and Wagner have been attacking it ferociously for the last 10 months and it has assumed symbolic importance from there.

“In reality, Bakhmut isn’t very important because it doesn’t control any major supply routes north or south. It’s just become a symbol.

“And that’s why the Ukrainians don’t want to give it up, or don’t want to be seen to give it up.

“They just want to undermine the morale of Russian forces and Russia’s reputation, particularly in other parts of the world.

Professor Clarke says that with all the misinformation going around, no-one knows the truth, and nor should they. “There are only about three or four people in Kyiv who will know the truth and know when the attack will take place and exactly where and they will issue those orders,” he said.

“But the rest of us are just guessing and that’s the way it should be. But the one thing we’re fairly certain of is that whatever happens first will be the most obvious thing. The first few moves in any offensive are likely to be deceptions, feigns and decoys.”

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