Ukraine should not fixate on defending the city of Bakhmut at all costs and instead use a window of opportunity to prepare a major counter-offensive against Russian forces, a senior US official said Friday.
That industrial hub has become the epicenter of the grinding war in eastern Ukraine, involving mass artillery strikes, slow advances and high casualties for both sides.
Bakhmut has also turned into a key political and symbolic prize, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visiting the frontlines there in December, right before his dramatic trip to address the US Congress in Washington.
However, a senior official in President Joe Biden's administration said the focus on Bakhmut is hampering Ukraine in the more important task of preparing a widely expected spring offensive to make major gains against Russian occupation in the south.
According to the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity and not being quoted verbatim, time favors Russia in Bakhmut, given its greater artillery resources and sheer numbers of troops.
However, the official said Russian victory there would not result in any significant shift in the war, because Ukrainian forces would retreat to well-defended positions.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby echoed this, telling reporters at the daily White House briefing Friday that the notorious Russia private military company Wagner was "pouring, just literally throwing bodies into a meat grinder" to capture Bakhmut and another town, Soledar.
"Even if they are successful, in Bakhmut and Soledar, it's not going to strategically change the dynamics on the battlefield. It's not going to set the Ukrainians back to a degree where they're all of a sudden on the back foot and they’re losing," Kirby said.
According to the senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity, Ukraine needs to refocus.
Instead of expending so many soldiers and so much ammunition on a strategically unimportant target, the United States is advising Ukraine to take those forces out for refit and join US-led training programs aimed at forming a more sophisticated and heavily armed force able to launch an offensive in the south.
The official noted that weapons for the counter-offensive were pouring into Ukraine, including several hundred armored vehicles just this week -- the kind of equipment that will be needed for a mobile offensive force.
But time is needed to train, so the Ukrainians need to consider the trade-off of holding onto Bakhmut versus preparing that broader strategic effort, the official said, adding that the Ukrainians may not have the resources to meet both challenges.