AMMAN (Reuters): US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Monday that the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was of more symbolic than operational importance, and its fall would not necessarily mean that Moscow had regained the initiative in the war.
The battle for Bakhmut has raged for seven months. A Russian victory in the city, which had a pre-war population of about 70,000 but has now been blasted to ruins, would give Moscow the first major prize in a costly winter offensive.
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin told reporters while visiting Jordan.
“The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” he said, adding that he would not predict whether or when Bakhmut might fall.
Russian artillery have been pounding the last routes out of the city, aiming to complete its encirclement, but the founder of the Wagner mercenary force leading the assault has said his troops are being deprived of ammunition by Moscow.
Austin said that if Ukrainian forces decided to reposition west of Bakhmut, he would not view that as a strategic setback.
Wagner often appears to operate autonomously from the regular army, or even in competition with it — and in a video published over the weekend, Prigozhin complained that the ammunition that Moscow had promised it had not been delivered.
Prigozhin regularly criticizes the military hierarchy and last month accused Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and others of “treason” for withholding munitions.
Austin alluded to differences between Wagner and the military, saying: “I think the fissures are there …
“I would say the Wagner forces have been a bit more effective than the Russian forces … Having said that, we have not seen exemplary performance from Russian forces.”