Exclusive: Volodymyr Zelensky warns of ‘open road’ through Ukraine’s east if Russia captures Bakhmut
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky joins CNN to talk about the Battle of Bakhmut, President Biden’s recent visit to Kiev and more. Watch the full exclusive interview on Wednesday, March 8 at 9pm ET.
Russian troops will have an “open path” to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine if they capture Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN, as he plans to keep Ukrainian troops in the besieged city. defended his decision.
“This is strategic for us,” Zelensky said, stressing that Kiev’s military brass is united to prolong the defense of the city after weeks of Russian offensives have left it close to falling to Moscow’s forces.
“We understand that after Bakhmut they can go further. They can go to Kramatorsk, they can go to Slovinsk, it will be an open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine in the direction of Donetsk,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an exclusive interview from Kiev. “That’s why our boys are standing there.”
Weeks of attacks by Wagner mercenaries, which have picked up pace in recent days, have forced thousands of people from the city and destroyed its infrastructure. But Ukrainian forces have also maintained a dogged defense of the region, halting Russian advances.
Zelensky said his motivations for holding the city were “so different” from Russia’s objectives. “We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least some victory – a small victory – even if by destroying everything in Bakhmut, by killing every civilian there,” Zelensky said.
He said that if Russia was able to plant “its own little flag” on top of the Bakhmut, it would help “mobilize their society to build the idea that they are such a powerful military.”
Although Bakhmut itself does not have significant strategic value, it has road connections with it Kramatorsk and Sloviansk – two densely populated, industrialized urban hubs to the northwest – means those cities will be next in Russia’s crosshairs if they are able to take control.
Some commanders and lower-level officials have questioned the ability to hold Bakhmut amid the rising death toll and the growing risk that hundreds or thousands of Ukrainian troops could be cut off.
But Zelensky dismissed those concerns, saying he had “not heard anything like that” from his commanders.
“We must think of our people first and nobody should be cornered – that is very important,” he said.
“The military sees itself that we have to stay strong there, despite the fact that Russia has destroyed the entire city and everything there,” Zelensky added. “The army was helping children, civilians to leave the city – even today people were leaving Bakhmut. We were helping everyone.
About 4,000 civilians – including 38 children – live inside the battered city, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said on Tuesday. “We have special evacuation teams, which help, and armored vehicles. But people often live in basements, leaving no information about their whereabouts,” he said in a televised address. “It makes evacuation very difficult.”
Meanwhile, NATO intelligence estimates that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Bakhmut, Russian forces have lost at least five, an alliance military official told CNN on Monday. The official cautioned that the 5-to-1 ratio was an informed estimate based on intelligence.
After capturing the city of Soledar in January, Wagner’s forces are descending on the city. Should they gain control of Bakhmut, it would be a rare case of a town changing hands in a dull and slow-moving war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser within the Ukrainian presidency, told CNN on Monday that in defending Bakhmut, Ukraine had two main goals: to buy time to replenish its forces and inflict heavy losses on Russian forces.
“It achieved its goals by 1,000%,” he said. “Even if at some point the military leadership decides to withdraw to more favorable positions, the case of defending Bakhmut will be a great strategic success for the Ukrainian armed forces as a foundation for future victory.”
Ukraine, meanwhile, is racing to integrate Western weapons systems and dozens of tanks into its operations, while Zelensky successfully persuaded the US, UK, Germany and a bloc of other European countries to increase their military aid.
It comes ahead of an anticipated Russian spring offensive that could engulf territory in central and northern Ukraine that Russia failed to capture in its initial offensive last year.