Exclusive: Zelensky warns of ‘open road’ through Ukraine’s east if Russia captures Bakhmut, as he resists calls to retreat

(CNN) Russian troops will have an “open road” to capture major cities in eastern Ukraine if they capture Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN, as he vowed to keep Ukrainian forces in the besieged city. defended his decision.

“It’s strategic for us,” Zelensky insisted, as Kiev’s military brass united to bolster its defense of the city after weeks of Russian attacks left it on the brink of falling to Moscow’s troops.

“We understand that after Bakhmut they could have gone further. They could have gone to Kramatorsk, they could have gone to Sloviansk, after Bakhmut to other cities in Ukraine, it would be an open road for the Russians in the Donetsk direction,” he told CNN. told Wolf Blitzer. In an exclusive interview from Kiev. “That’s why our people are standing there.”

A week-long offensive by Wagner mercenaries, which has gathered momentum in recent days, has forced thousands of people from the city and destroyed much of its infrastructure. But Ukrainian troops have also taken a tough stand to defend the region, stalling Russian advances.

Zelensky said that his intention to keep the city was “so different” to Russia’s objectives. Zelensky said, “We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least some victory – a small victory – even by destroying everything in Bakhmut, just every citizen there By killing.”

He added that if Russia is able to plant “their little flag” over Bakhmut, it will help “organize their society to form the idea that they are such a powerful force.”

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions near Bakhmut, as the battle for the city intensifies.

Although Bakhmut itself does not hold significant strategic value, its road links to Kramatorsk and Slavyansk – two densely populated, industrialized urban centers in the northwest – mean those cities are next in Russia’s crosshairs if they are to take control. are capable.

Some commanders and lower-level officers have questioned the expediency of holding Bakhmut amidst the growing number of casualties and the increased risk of hundreds or even thousands of Ukrainian soldiers being cut off.

But Zelensky dismissed those concerns, saying he had “never heard anything like this” from his commanders.

“We have to think about our people first and not surround anyone, it is very important,” he said.

“I had online and offline meetings yesterday with chiefs of staff and major military commanders… and they all talk that we have to stand firm in Bakhmut,” he said. “Of course we have to think about the lives of our army. But while we are getting weapons, supplies and our army is getting ready to strike back, we have to do everything we can.”

Zelensky said, “The army itself sees that the Russians have ruined the whole city and everything there, yet we have to stay strong there.” “Soldiers were helping children, civilians to leave the city — even today people were leaving Bakhmut. We were helping everyone.

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The country’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said Tuesday that about 4,000 civilians – including 38 children – remain inside the battered city. “We have special evacuation teams who help, and armored vehicles. But people often live in basements, leaving no information about their whereabouts,” she said in a televised address. “It makes evacuation more difficult.”

NATO intelligence meanwhile estimates that for every Ukrainian soldier killed in the defense of Bakhmut, Russian forces have lost at least five, a military official with the alliance told CNN on Monday. The official cautioned that the 5-to-1 ratio was an informed guess based on intelligence.

Wagner’s troops have been landing on the city since the capture of Soledar in January. Should they gain control of Bakhmut, it would mark a rare case of a city changing hands in a languid and slow-moving war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

Mykhailo Podolić, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, told CNN on Monday that in defending Bakhmut, Ukraine had two main goals: to buy time to replenish its forces and to inflict heavy losses on Russian forces.

“It achieved its goals by 1,000%,” he said. “Even if at some point the military leadership decides to retreat to more favorable positions, the case of defending Bakhmut will be a great strategic success for the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a foundation for future victories “

Ukraine is rushing to integrate Western weapons systems and dozens of tanks into its operations after Zelensky successfully persuaded the US, Britain, Germany and a slew of other European countries to increase their military aid.

It comes ahead of an anticipated Russian spring offensive that could include territory in central and northern Ukraine that Russia failed to capture in its initial offensive last year.

In recent days, a video emerged that Zelensky said showed the killing of a Ukrainian soldier by Russian forces, although Moscow has consistently denied allegations that it or its troops committed war crimes.

According to the clip, the man, identified as Timofey Mykolayovich Shadura, says “Slava Ukraini (Victory to Ukraine)” before being executed by Ukrainian forces on Tuesday.

Zelensky told CNN that the video “shows the Russian attitude toward POWs (prisoners of war). They don’t have any law of war or international law or any convention. It’s a question of whether these people — they respect anything.” They don’t. They don’t fight like soldiers,” he said.

“For us, it’s a war for our freedom, for democracy, for our values. For them it’s terrorism – that’s the attitude. And they post this video….that’s the face of this war. This is its face.” Russian Federation,” he said.

CNN’s Tim Lister, Olga Voitovich and Vasko Kotovio contributed reporting.

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