Zelensky warns of “free passage” if Russia seizes Buckeye

(CNN) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN that if Russian troops take Baghmut, they will have the “freedom” to seize key cities in eastern Ukraine.

“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky said, insisting that Kiev’s military leadership is united in maintaining the city’s defenses after weeks of Russian offensives left the city on the brink of falling to Moscow troops.

“We understand that after Bagmuth they can go further. They can go to Gramadores, they can go to Slovenians, and after Bagmuth it will be an open path for the Russians to other cities in Ukraine in the direction of Donetsk,” he told CNN. Wolf Blitzer. In an exclusive interview from Kiev. “That’s where our people are.”

A week-long offensive by Wagner militia troops, which has accelerated in recent days, has forced thousands of people to flee the city and destroyed its infrastructure. But Ukrainian troops have also established solid defenses of the area, blocking Russian advances.

Zelensky said his motivations for holding the city were “very different” from Russia’s goals.

“We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least some victory – even a small victory – to destroy everything in Pakmut and kill all the civilians there,” Zelensky said.

Zelensky said that if Russia could put “their little flag” over Bagmut, it would help them “mobilize their society to create the impression that they are a powerful army.”

As the battle for the city escalated, Ukrainian soldiers fired a self-propelled howitzer at Russian positions near Pakmut. Credit: Libkos/AP

Although Bakhmut has no significant strategic value, its road connections to Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, two densely populated and industrial urban centers in the northwest, mean that Russia’s crosshairs will be next if those cities can take control.

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Some commanders and lower-ranking officials have questioned the wisdom of holding Bagmuth amid mounting casualties and the risk of the amputation of hundreds if not thousands of Ukrainian troops.

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

“We have to think about our people first, nobody should be surrounded, fenced off, this is very important,” he said.

“Even if Russia destroys the whole city and everything there, the army sees itself as saying that we have to be strong there,” Zelensky added. “Troops helped children, civilians to leave the city, and to this day people are still leaving Bagmouth. We were helping everyone.”

About 4,000 civilians – including 38 children – remain inside the besieged city, the country’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk said on Tuesday. “We have special evacuation teams that help, and armored vehicles. But mostly people stay in basements and have no information about their whereabouts,” he said in a televised speech. “It makes evacuation more difficult.”

Meanwhile, NATO intelligence services estimate that for every Ukrainian soldier killed defending Pakmut, Russian forces have lost at least five, a coalition military official told CNN on Monday. The official cautioned that the 5-to-1 ratio is an estimate based on intelligence.

Wagner’s troops had been landing in the city since the capture of Soledar in January. If they gain control of Bakmut, it will be a rare change of hands in what has become a slow-moving war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.

Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to the Ukrainian presidency, told CNN on Monday that Ukraine has two main goals in defending Bagmouth: buying time to replenish its forces and inflicting heavy losses on Russian forces.

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“He achieved his goals 1,000%,” he said. “Even if the military leadership sometimes decides to return to more favorable positions, the case for securing Bagmut will be a great strategic victory for the Ukrainian Armed Forces as a basis for future victories.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine is rushing to integrate Western weapons systems and dozens of tanks into its operations after Zelensky urged the United States, Britain, Germany and a host of other European countries to increase their military aid.

The moves come ahead of a Russian spring offensive expected to include territory in central and northern Ukraine that Russia failed to capture in its initial invasion last year.

— CNN’s Tim Lister, Olga Voitovych and Vasco Cotovio contributed to this report.

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