Exclusive: Volodymyr Zelensky warns of an ‘open road’ through eastern Ukraine if Russia takes Bakhmut

(CNN) Russian forces would have an “open road” to seizing key cities in eastern Ukraine if they did control of BakhmutPresident Volodymyr Zelensky cautioned in an interview with CNN, where he defended his decision to keep Ukrainian forces in the besieged city.

“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky said, insisting that Kiev’s military leaders are united in prolonging the war. defense of the city After weeks of Russian attacks, it left it on the cusp of falling into the hands of Russian forces.

“We understand that after Bakhmut they can go further. They can go to Kramatorsk, they can go to Sloviansk, and it will be an open road for Russians after Bakhmut to other cities in Ukraine, in the direction of Donetsk,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. In an exclusive interview from Kyiv. “That’s why our men are standing there.”

weeks of assault Wagner’s mercenary forcesThe pace of which has accelerated in recent days has forced thousands to flee the city and destroyed its infrastructure. But Ukrainian forces also put up a stubborn defense of the area, which held back Russia’s advance.

Zelensky said his motives for keeping the city are “very different” from Russia’s. “We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least some victory – a small victory – even by destroying everything in Bakhmut, killing every civilian there,” Zelensky said.

He said that if Russia was able to “put its little flag” on top of Bakhmut, it would help “mobilize their society in order to create the idea that they are a strong army”.

Ukrainian soldiers fired self-propelled howitzers at Russian positions near Bakhmut, as the battle for the city intensified.

Although Bakhmut does not carry much strategic value in itself, its road connections do Kramatorsk and Sloviansk – Two densely populated industrial urban hubs in the northwest – means those cities will be next in Russia’s crosshairs if they can take over.

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Some lower-ranking commanders and officers questioned the feasibility of detaining Bakhmut amid mounting casualties and the growing risk of alienating hundreds or even thousands of Ukrainian forces.

But Zelensky dismissed those concerns, saying he had “never heard anything like that” from his commanders.

“We have to think about our people first and no one should be cornered or besieged – this is very important,” he said.

Zelensky added: “The military sees for themselves that we have to stay strong there despite the fact that Russia destroyed the whole city and everything there.” “The forces were helping children and civilians leave the city – until today people were leaving Bakhmut. We were helping everyone.

Elsewhere on Tuesday, the country’s deputy prime minister, Irina Vereshuk, said nearly 4,000 civilians – including 38 children – remained inside the devastated city. “We have special evacuation teams helping us and armored vehicles. But people often stay in basements without leaving any information about their whereabouts,” she said in a televised address. This makes evacuation more difficult.”

Meanwhile, NATO intelligence has estimated that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Bakhmut, Russian forces lost at least five, a NATO military official told CNN Monday. The official cautioned that the 5-to-1 ratio was an informed estimate based on intelligence.

Wagner’s forces had been descending on the city since the capture of the town of Solidar in January. If they took control of Bakhmut, it would be a rare case of a city changing hands in what has become a slow, slow-moving war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

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Ukraine has two main goals in defending Bakhmut: buying time to replenish its forces and inflicting heavy losses on the Russian armies, an advisor to the Ukrainian presidency, Mykhailo Podolyak, told CNN on Monday.

“She achieved her goals 1,000 percent,” he said. “Even if at some point the military leadership decides to retreat to more favorable positions, the defense of Bakhmut will be a major strategic success for the Armed Forces of Ukraine as the basis for future victory.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine is racing to integrate Western weapons systems and dozens of tanks into its operations, after Zelensky succeeded in persuading the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and a bloc of other European countries to increase their military assistance.

This comes ahead of an expected Russian spring offensive that could include areas in central and northern Ukraine that Russia failed to seize in its initial invasion last year.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Olga Vojtović and Vasko Cutoviu contributed reporting.

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