The Ukrainian military and Russia's mercenary Wagner forces have reported additional Russian withdrawals around Bakhmut as Kyiv continued its largest advance in the city in months in preparation for a protracted counteroffensive.
Ukraine announced on Thursday that it had repelled a day of Russian attacks in and around the devastated eastern city and made gains of up to 1 kilometer (nearly 3,300 feet) in some locations.
The head of the Wagner Group, spearheading the Russian assault on Bakhmut, reported that his forces had advanced up to 400 meters (more than 1,300 feet) within the city.
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin stated in an audio recording on his Telegram channel, "We're pushing Bakhmut to the finish line."
According to Prigozhin, Wagner forces are on the verge of evicting Ukrainian forces from their last stronghold in the urbanized area on the city's western periphery. However, he also accused Russia's regular forces of abandoning territory north and south of the city, thereby increasing the danger of encirclement of Russian troops inside the city.
"Unfortunately, units of the Russian Ministry of Defense have withdrawn up to 570 meters north of Bakhmut, exposing our flanks," Prigozhin said in his most recent voice message on Thursday.
Prigozhin stated, addressing Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, "I am publicly appealing to the top leadership of the Ministry of Defense because my letters are not being read."
"Please do not give up the flanks," he requested.
Hanna Maliar, the deputy defense minister of Ukraine, reported that Ukrainian forces were achieving their "military objectives" in Bakhmut.
"As of now, we control the southwestern part of Bakhmut," she said.
Russia attacked Bakhmut throughout the day on Thursday after "significantly bolstering" its forces in the city by bringing in most of its reserves, but all "attacks were repulsed," she said.
The Russian Ministry of Defense acknowledges some withdrawals from positions near Bakhmut over the past week but denies Prigozhin's claims that flanks are disintegrating and that ammunition has been withheld from Wagner.
In its most recent briefing on the conflict, the Institute for the Study of War reported that Ukrainian forces have acquired "tactical initiative and made tactically significant gains around Bakhmut in counter-attack operations" on Thursday.
"The limited nature of Wagner's offensive operations in Bakhmut compared to the localized Ukrainian counterattacks highlights the loss of Russian initiative in the region," a think tank in Washington, D.C. stated.
Declaring victory in the charred ruins of Bakhmut, described by both parties as a "meat grinder," would be Moscow's only reward for its massive winter offensive, which failed elsewhere on the front.
Kyiv claims that its strategy in Bakhmut is to lure Russian forces into the urban warfare of the city to weaken Russia's front-line defenses in other areas before its planned counterattack.
The region surrounding the city, once home to 70,000 people in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, has been the site of intense combat for months.
Commander of Ukraine's ground forces, Oleksander Syrskyi, stated in a social media message this week that Wagner forces had "climbed into Bakhmut like rats into a mousetrap."
"The enemy has more resources, but we are destroying his plans," he declared.
Thursday night, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy lauded his troops and the nation's air defenses in the wake of days of complex missile and drone attacks on Kyiv and other cities, which were largely repelled, destroying incoming Russian missiles.
In his nightly address, Zelenskyy stated, "First and foremost, the defense brigades did a good job, they accomplished the primary strategic objectives but now is not the time to go into specifics."
"Secondly, the offensive brigades are doing a good job, we are preparing," he said, adding that he could not provide any additional information.
"Thirdly, with regard to the protection of civilians, the Air Force is performing admirably... This week, next week, and the foreseeable future, our top priorities are additional air defense systems, missiles, training, aircraft, and long-range weapons. And this will come to pass."
Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, stated that Russia's repeated missile attacks on Kyiv – nine this month – indicate Moscow's desperation.
Danilov tweeted that Moscow was attacking "symbolic places" in Kyiv to "increase the level of patriotic hysteria" in Russia.
In Russia, "a process of despondency and disillusionment with the authorities is developing against the backdrop of the offensive's failure and front-line setbacks," he added.