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 over Bakhmut, President Biden’s recent visit to Kiev and more. Watch the full exclusive interview on Wednesday, March 8 at 9 p.m. ET.
Russian troops will have “open roads” to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine if they take control of Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN, defending his decision to keep Ukrainian troops in the besieged city.
“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky said, insisting that Kyiv’s military force is united in continuing the defense of the city after weeks of Russian attacks brought it close to falling to Moscow’s forces.
“We understand that they can move on after Bakhmut. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be an open way for the Russians after Bakhmut to other cities in Ukraine, towards Donetsk,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an exclusive interview from Kiev. “That’s why our guys are standing there.”
A weeks-long assault by Wagner’s mercenaries, which has gathered momentum in recent days, has driven thousands from the city and decimated its infrastructure. But Ukrainian forces have also mounted a stubborn defense of the area, slowing Russia’s progress.
Zelensky said his motivations for keeping the city are “so different” from Russia’s goals. “We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least a victory – a small victory – even by ruining everything in Bakhmut, by just killing every civilian there,” Zelensky said.
He said that if Russia manages to put “their little flag” on Bakhmut, it would help “mobilize their society to create the idea that they are such a powerful army.”
While Bakhmut in itself has no significant strategic value, its road links to Kramatorsk and Sloviansk — two densely populated, industrial urban hubs in the northwest — mean those cities are next in Russia’s crosshairs if they can take control.
Some commanders and junior officers have questioned the merits of holding Bakhmut amid mounting casualties and a growing risk that hundreds or even thousands of Ukrainian troops could be cut off.
But Zelensky dismissed those concerns, saying he had “never heard anything like it” from his commanders.
“We must think of our people first and no one should be surrounded, surrounded – this is very important,” he said.
“The army sees for itself that we have to stay strong there, despite the fact that Russia destroyed the whole city and everything there,” Zelensky added. “Troops helped children, civilians to leave the city – even to this day people left Bakhmut. We helped everyone.
Nearly 4,000 civilians — including 38 children — remain in the battered city, the country’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said elsewhere on Tuesday. “We have special evacuation teams that help, and armored vehicles. But people often stay in basements and leave no information about their whereabouts,” she said in a televised speech. “This makes evacuation much more difficult.”
NATO intelligence, meanwhile, 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.
Wagner forces have been invading the city since they captured the town of Soledar in January. If they gain control of Bakhmut, it would be a rare case of a city changing hands in what has become a slow and slow-moving war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
An adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, Mykhailo Podolyak, told CNN on Monday that Ukraine had two main goals in defending Bakhmut: to buy time to replenish its troops and inflict heavy casualties on Russian armies.
“It has achieved its goals by 1,000%,” he said. “Even if at some point the military leadership decides to withdraw to more favorable positions, the defense of Bakhmut will be a great strategic success for the Ukrainian forces as a basis for a future victory.”
Ukraine, meanwhile, is racing to integrate Western weapon systems and dozens of tanks into its operations, after Zelensky successfully persuaded the US, UK, Germany and a bloc of other European countries to ramp up its military aid.
It comes ahead of an expected spring Russian offensive that may include areas in central and northern Ukraine that Russia failed to capture in its initial invasion last year.