Amid Rumors of an Impending Ukrainian Retreat from Bakhmut, the Information War Heats Up

BAKHMUT, Ukraine — As Russian forces launched assaults from multiple directions aimed at encircling Ukrainian soldiers in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the information campaign around the battle was also intensifying.

Signs are mounting that Ukraine might be forced to retreat from the decimated city. But on Friday, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, accused “Russian propagandists” of “spreading the narratives that are intended to demoralize the Ukrainian military and society.”

As if on cue, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary force that has helped lead Russia’s assault on Bakhmut, released a video saying that the Ukrainians only had one road left to escape the city and urged President Volodymyr Zelensky to order a withdrawal.

“The pincers are closing,” he said.

It is not the first time Mr. Prigozhin has made bold proclamations, many of which have proven false. But the precariousness of the Ukrainian grip on Bakhmut has been evident for weeks. While President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine at one point vowed that “fortress” Bakhmut would not fall, in recent days Ukrainian officials have been preparing the public for a possible retreat even as they rush reinforcements to the area.

Col. Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine Eastern command, told reporters on Thursday that Ukrainian forces would conduct a tactical retreat from Bakhmut if necessary.

Bakhmut has taken on a deep symbolic resonance for both sides, which have incurred staggering numbers of casualties. The main question for Ukraine at the moment is ensuring that if a withdrawal was deemed necessary how they would do so in a way that minimizes losses.

The gravest risk for Ukrainian forces is that they would be encircled, trapped and killed in large numbers. But the more immediate risk is that Russia makes it impossible to resupply the Ukrainian fighters in and around Bakhmut.

The road from Bakhmut to Chasiv Yar — three miles to the west — is the last major supply line for Ukrainian soldiers in and around Bakhmut. Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in Ukraine’s national guard, often travels that road and said on Friday that the route is coming under regular shelling.

“The enemy tries to advance and conducts assaults not even every day, but almost every hour,” Mr. Nazarenko said, but added that Ukraine has continued to defend the supply line.

If that changes — which it could any day — then the calculations of Ukraine’s military and political leaders would also likely shift.

The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit who has offered frequent updates on the situation from inside Bakhmut said on Thursday that Kyiv still controlled the city but warned that the situation was growing more difficult by the day.

“It is getting harder and harder to hold it,” the commander, who goes by the call sign Magyar, said in a video message, noting Russian efforts to cut the last supply lines to the city.

On Friday, he posted a video saying his unit had been ordered to withdraw from the city to another position. He offered no other details.

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