U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Monday if Russian troops manage to seize control of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, that would not represent a decisive shift in the conflict.
"I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value," Austin told reporters during a visit to Jordan.
Bakhmut has been the site of months of intense fighting with Russia pushing to take control of the area in Ukraine’s Donetsk province.
Austin said Monday he would not view a Ukrainian decision to reposition its troops to the west of the city as a strategic setback for Ukraine.
Ukraine, however, publicly suggested it would continue to defend Bakhmut. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with the country’s top generals and his office later released a statement, saying, “They spoke in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut.”
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington research organization, said “Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a limited tactical withdrawal in Bakhmut, although it is still too early to assess Ukrainian intentions concerning a complete withdrawal from the city.”
The analysts said Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut “remains strategically sound as it continues to consume Russian manpower and equipment as long as Ukrainian forces do not suffer excessive casualties.”
The analysts added that “Ukrainian forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut all at once and may pursue a gradual fighting withdrawal to exhaust Russian forces through continued urban warfare.”
They said that “Russian forces are unlikely to quickly secure significant territorial gains when conducting urban warfare, which usually favors the defender and can allow Ukrainian forces to inflict high casualties on advancing Russian units—even as Ukrainian forces are actively withdrawing.”
The institute concluded that “endemic personnel and equipment constraints will likely prevent Russian forces from launching another prolonged offensive operation like the battle for Bakhmut in the coming months.”
Ukraine’s military on Monday also reported a fresh round of Russian attacks using Iran-made drones.
The Ukrainian defense ministry tweeted that its forces shot down 13 of 15 drones.
Russia has used the Shahed drones to crash into targets in areas across Ukraine, including infrastructure sites.
Meanwhile, Russia said Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Russian soldiers and a medical center Monday in southern Ukraine.
The defense ministry said Shoigu’s visit to Mariupol included a tour of the city, which Russia leveled last year, in order to oversee reconstruction efforts. The ministry did not specify when the visit took place.
Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.