Zelensky: Putin will ‘smell’ weakness if Bakhmut falls
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky emphasized the need for his country to hold the eastern city of Bakhmut, saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin will “smell” weakness if the city falls.
Zelensky said in an interview with The Associated Press that Putin would “sell this victory” to the Russian people, China and Iran if Russian forces take Bakhmut, which has been under heavy Russian assault for months.
“If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” he said.
Russia has focused on capturing Bakhmut, which could allow them to move into more areas of the eastern Donbas region, after months of a stalemate in which neither Russian nor Ukrainian soldiers made much progress.
Ukraine successfully retook thousands of square kilometers of its territory as part of a counteroffensive in the northeast and south during the fall, but the front lines largely did not change during much of the winter.
The battle over Bakhmut has been ongoing for seven months and is the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. As Russian forces closed in on the city on three sides, some Ukrainian officials considered a strategic withdrawal from the city.
But Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Ukraine’s top commander, said last week that the situation has begun stabilizing as Ukrainian defenses harden and Russia moves to a defensive strategy in the eastern part of the country.
Zelensky spoke to the AP on a train traveling across Ukraine, passing cities with intense fighting.
Western military analysts have said Bakhmut does not have much strategic importance, but Zelensky said any loss could jeopardize Ukraine’s momentum to retake the territory that Russia has captured.
“We can’t lose the steps because the war is a pie — pieces of victories. Small victories, small steps,” he said.
Zelensky also warned that losing Bakhmut could cause the Ukrainian people to “feel tired” and push him to compromise with Russia. He has stressed on many occasions that any conclusion to the war must include Ukraine regaining all 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 their ties. China has been officially neutral in the conflict, but U.S. intelligence has signaled that China has sent nonlethal aid and is considering also sending lethal aid to Russia’s military.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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