The information war is heating up amid rumors of an imminent Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut

BAKHMUT, Ukraine — As Russian forces launched attacks from multiple directions to encircle Ukrainian soldiers in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the information campaign surrounding the battle also intensified.

There are increasing signs that Ukraine may be forced to withdraw from the decimated city. But on Friday, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar accused “Russian propagandists” of “spreading narratives aimed at demoralizing the Ukrainian military and society.”

As if on cue, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary force that led Russia’s attack on Bakhmut, released a video saying that Ukrainians had only one way left to flee the city and calling for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to order a retreat.

“The pincers are closing,” he said.

It is not the first time Mr Prigozhin has made bold proclamations, many of which have been proven false. But the precariousness of the Ukrainian grip on Bakhmut has been evident for weeks. While Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy once vowed that Bakhmut “Fortress” would not fall, Ukrainian officials in recent days have been preparing the public for a possible retreat while sending reinforcements to the area.

Colonel Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Command, told reporters Thursday that Ukrainian forces would conduct a tactical withdrawal from Bakhmut if necessary.

Bakhmut has taken on a deep symbolic resonance for both sides, who have suffered a staggering number of casualties. The most important issue for Ukraine right now is to ensure that if a withdrawal is deemed necessary, how would it do so in a way that minimizes casualties.

The greatest risk for Ukrainian forces is that they will be encircled, captured and killed in large numbers. But the more immediate risk is that Russia will make it impossible to supply Ukrainian fighters in and around Bakhmut.

The Bakhmut to Chasiv Yar road – three miles west – is the last major supply line for Ukrainian soldiers in and around Bakhmut. Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander of Ukraine’s National Guard, often drives on this road and said on Friday the route was regularly shelled.

“The enemy is trying to advance and is conducting attacks not even every day, but almost every hour,” Nazarenko said, adding that Ukraine is still defending the supply line.

If that changes – which it could any day – then the calculations of Ukraine’s military and political leaders would likely change as well.

The commander of a Ukrainian drone unit, who has offered frequent updates on the situation from Bakhmut, said Thursday that Kiev still controls the city, but warned that the situation is getting worse by the day.

“It’s getting harder and harder to hold,” the commander, who has the call sign Magyar, said in a video message, noting Russian efforts to cut the last supply lines into the city.

On Friday, he released a video saying his unit had been ordered to withdraw from the city to another position. He did not give any further details. The information war is heating up amid rumors of an imminent Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut

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