Russian forces will have an "open road" to seize other critical settlements in eastern Ukraine if they capture Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN, reiterating his bid to continue the city's defense.
"This is tactical for us… after Bakhmut, they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk," Zelensky said in an interview from Kyiv. "That's why our guys are standing there."
The report comes a day after President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to Ukrainians that there was consensus between him and Ukraine's top military leadership that Ukrainian forces should continue to hold the city.
Citing unnamed sources in the Ukrainian government, Bild reported on March 6 that Zelensky and Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces Valerii Zaluzhnyi disagree on how the military should handle the situation in Bakhmut.
The battle for Bakhmut, a city in Donetsk Oblast, has been raging for the past seven months. The Russian military is attempting to increase its grip over the entirety of the oblast, around half of which it currently occupies.
Zelensky also told CNN that "Russia needs at least some victory – a small victory – even by ruining everything in Bakhmut, just killing every civilian there," adding that if Russia can "put their little flag" on top of Bakhmut, it would help "mobilize their society to create this idea they're such a powerful army."
Around March 2, Russian forces reportedly destroyed the only paved bridge still under Ukrainian control, and with the coming of spring, muddy unpaved roads are "likely" making Ukraine's resupply efforts more difficult.
Despite a recent claim by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian state-backed mercenary Wagner Group, that Bakhmut is "practically surrounded," Zelensky insisted this is exactly what Ukraine aims to avoid.
"We have to think about our people first, and no one should be surrounded, encircled – this is very important," he said, as quoted by CNN.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on March 6 that Bakhmut had more "symbolic" value than a "strategic one" for the Ukrainian military, and he predicted that Ukraine's potential withdrawal from the city would not cause any major setbacks in the war.