There is now just one main road out of Bakhmut under Ukrainian control, with the mining hub that was once home to around 80,000 reduced to artillery craters and muddy trenches.
But Ukrainian officials have doubled down on their strategy, insisting that holding the city was in fact critical to their future operations even as losses mount on both sides.
Ukraine’s future hinges on the outcome of the battles raging in Bakhmut and nearby areas, Zelenskyy said this week, as he underscored his commitment to holding out in the city.
“There was a clear position of the entire command: Strengthen this sector and destroy the occupiers to the maximum,” he said in his nightly video address Tuesday.
Officials in Kyiv have insisted the battle both restricts Russian advances by forcing Moscow to throw troops and equipment into Bakhmut, while laying the ground for future Ukrainian advances by allowing their own reserves more time to prepare.
Their position was given public backing in Washington on Wednesday.
“Ukraine has fixed the Russian forces at that city and they’re exacting very heavy costs on the Wagner Group and the Russian regular military,” the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told a news briefing.
NBC News has reached out to the Ukrainian government for further comment.
For its part Moscow hopes Bakhmut could open a path to capturing the rest of its surrounding region. The city lies in the northeastern part of Donetsk province, one half of Ukraine’s industrial Donbas heartland that has become the central target of the Kremlin’s offensive.
With that in mind, some analysts said Ukraine’s approach made sense.
“The idea of the Ukrainians is not just to kill as many Russians as possible, but to fix their troops there so they cannot deploy them anywhere else,” said Rajan Menon, a director at the Washington think tank Defense Priorities, adding that Ukraine was well aware of its position in Bakhmut and was taking a calculated risk.
“The question is if you can hold the line and inflict damage with a cost that the commanders in Ukraine deem as acceptable,” Menon said, “is it necessarily a disastrous thing to do?”