Ukrainian forces have launched a local counterattack to the west of Bakhmut where Vladimir Putin’s army may be losing its momentum to capture the town after months of fierce fighting, British defence chiefs said on Wednesday.
However, they stressed that the fate of the town in eastern Ukraine was still in the balance and Putin’s regular military, and his “private army”, the Wagner Group, could still encircle it and seize it.
In its latest intelligence update, the Ministry of Defence in London said: “Over recent days Ukrainian forces initiated a local counterattack to the west of the Donetsk Oblast (province) town of Bakhmut, which is likely to relieve pressure on the threatened H-32 supply route.
“Fighting continues around the town centre and the Ukrainian defence remains at risk from envelopment from the north and south.
“However, there is a realistic possibility that the Russian assault on the town is losing the limited momentum it had obtained, partially because some Russian MoD units have been reallocated to other sectors.”
Putin’s army and the Wagner Group have suffered very heavy losses in the battle for Bakhmut, with some claims they have had seven casualties for every Ukrainian one.
However, the disparity in losses is said to have lessened as Russian units have seized more territory.
Bakhmut is not strategically important for the outcome of the war.
But Putin has sacrificed so many troops to try to capture it, and Ukraine has deployed so many soldiers to defend it, that it has become politically significant.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said the fiercest fighting in the country continued to take place near Bakhmut and Avdiivka to the south.
Bursts of incoming and outgoing artillery fire has been heard in the town of Chasiv Yar just west of Bakhmut
Between apartment blocks in Chasiv Yar, mainly elderly residents queued for water and food delivered by a team from the State Emergency Service.
Oleksii Stepanov said he had been in Bakhmut until five days ago but was evacuated when his house was destroyed by a missile.
“We were in the kitchen and the missile came through the roof. The kitchen was all that was left standing,” said the 54-year-old.
Moscow has launched a widespread but stuttering winter offensive using thousands of freshly called-up reservists and convicts recruited as mercenaries from jail.
Despite the bloodiest fighting of the war, which both sides describe as a meat grinder, the front line has barely moved for four months except in Bakhmut where Russian forces made gains in January and February.
Meanwhile, China’s President Xi Jinping left Russia on Wednesday after a grandiose display of solidarity with Putin against the West, that ended with the two autocrats pledging to work together to shape a new world order.
During his two-day visit Xi barely mentioned the Ukraine conflict and said on Tuesday in final remarks that China had an “impartial position”. There was no sign that Xi’s efforts to play the role of peacemaker had yielded results, but nor did he make any offer of direct support for Putin’s war in Ukraine.
Yet, as Xi departed he told Putin: “Now there are changes that haven’t happened in 100 years. When we are together, we drive these changes.”
“I agree,” Putin said, to which Xi responded: “Take care of yourself dear friend, please.”
Commenting on the Xi-Putin meeting, the White House said China’s position was not impartial and urged Beijing to pressure Russia to withdraw from Ukraine’s sovereign territory in order to end Europe’s biggest conflict since World War Two.
Overnight while Xi was in Moscow, Russian forces launched a “massive air strike”, firing 21 Shahed-136 drones, the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said on Wednesday.
As Xi prepared to leave Moscow, air raid sirens blared across the Ukraine capital Kyiv and in Ukraine’s north and east, with reports of drone attacks, but no major destruction.