(CNN) — Russian troops will have “open road” to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine if they seize control of Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN, as he defended his decision to keep Ukrainian forces in the besieged city.
“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky said, insisting that Kyiv’s military brass is united in prolonging its defense of the city after weeks of Russian attacks left it on the cusp of falling to Moscow’s troops.
“We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an exclusive interview from Kyiv. “That’s why our guys are standing there.”
A weeks-long assault from Wagner mercenary troops, which has picked up pace in recent days, has forced thousands from the city and decimated its infrastructure. But Ukrainian troops have also mounted a dogged defense of the area, stalling Russia’s progress.
Zelensky said his motivations to keep the city are “so different” to Russia’s objectives. “We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least some victory — a small victory — even by ruining everything in Bakhmut, just killing every civilian there,” Zelensky said.
He said that if Russia is able to “put their little flag” on top of Bakhmut, it would help “mobilize their society in order to create this idea they’re such a powerful army.”
Though Bakhmut does not hold significant strategic value in itself, its road connections to Kramatorsk and Sloviansk — two densely populated, industrial urban hubs to the northwest — mean those cities be next in Russia’s crosshairs if they are able to take control.
Some commanders and lower level officers have questioned the merit of holding Bakhmut amid a rising number of casualties and a growing risk that hundreds or even thousands of Ukrainian troops could get cut off.
But Zelensky dismissed those concerns, saying he has “never heard anything like that” from his commanders.
“We have to think about our people first and no one should be surrounded, encircled — this is very important,” he said.
“The military sees for themselves that we have to stay strong there despite the fact that Russia ruined the whole city and everything there,” Zelensky added. “Troops were helping kids, civilians to leave the town — even up to today people were leaving Bakhmut. We were helping everyone.
Nearly 4,000 civilians — including 38 children — remain inside the battered city, the country’s Vice Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said elsewhere on Tuesday. “We have special evacuation teams, who help, and armored vehicles. But people often stay in basements, leaving no information about their whereabouts,” she said in a televised address. “This makes evacuation much more difficult.”
NATO intelligence meanwhile estimates that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Bakhmut, Russian forces have lost at least five, a military official with the alliance told CNN on Monday. The official cautioned the 5-to-1 ratio was an informed estimate based on intelligence.
Wagner troops have been descending on the city since capturing the town of Soledar in January. Should they gain control of Bakhmut, it would mark a rare case of a town changing hands in what has become a sluggish and slow-moving war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
An adviser within the Ukrainian Presidency, Mykhailo Podolyak, told CNN on Monday that in defending Bakhmut, Ukraine had two main goals: buying time to replenish its forces and inflicting heavy losses on Russian armies.
“It achieved its goals by 1,000%,” he said. “Even if the military leadership at some point decides to retreat to more favorable positions, the case of defending Bakhmut will be a great strategic success for the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a foundation for future victory.”
Ukraine is meanwhile racing to integrate Western weapons systems and dozens of tanks into its operations, after Zelensky successfully persuaded the US, the UK, Germany and a bloc of other European nations to step up its military aid.
It comes ahead of an anticipated Russian spring offensive that may encompass territory in central and northern Ukraine which Russia was unsuccessful in capturing in its initial invasion last
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