Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed his country’s need to hold the eastern city of Bakhmut, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin will “smell” weakness if the city falls.
Zelenskyi said in an interview with The Associated Press that Putin will “sell this victory” to the Russian people, China and Iran if Russian forces take Bakhmut, which has been under heavy Russian attack for months.
“If he feels some blood – smells that we’re weak – he’ll push, push, push,” he said.
Russia has focused on capturing Bakhmut, which could allow them to advance into more areas of the eastern Donbass region after months of a standoff in which neither Russian nor Ukrainian soldiers made much progress.
Ukraine successfully retook thousands of square kilometers of its territory in a counteroffensive in the north-east and south in the autumn, but front lines did not change through much of the winter.
The Battle of Bakhmut has been going on for seven months and is the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. As Russian forces approached the city from three sides, some Ukrainian officials considered a strategic retreat from the city.
But General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s supreme commander, said last week that the situation had started to stabilize as Ukraine’s defenses hardened and Russia shifted to a defensive strategy in the eastern part of the country.
Zelenskyi spoke to AP on a train traveling through Ukraine, passing cities with intense fighting.
Western military analysts have said Bakhmut is not of major strategic importance, but Zelensky said any loss could jeopardize Ukraine’s momentum to retake territory captured by Russia.
“We must not lose steps because war is a cake – slices of victories. Small wins, small steps,” he said.
Zelensky also warned that the loss of Bakhmut could make the Ukrainian people “tired” and urge him to compromise with Russia. He has stressed on many occasions that any conclusion to the war must include Ukraine regaining all of its lost territory, including the Crimean peninsula.
Zelensky also invited Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met with Putin in Russia last week, to visit Ukraine as China and Russia appear to be strengthening ties. China has been officially neutral in the conflict, but US intelligence has signaled that China has not sent lethal aid and is considering sending lethal aid to the Russian military as well.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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Source : thehill.com