The battle for Bakhmut has raged for seven months. A Russian victory in the city, which had a pre-war population of about 70,000 but has now been blasted to ruins, would give Moscow the first major prize in a costly winter offensive.
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin told reporters while visiting Jordan.
“The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” he said, adding that he would not predict whether or when Bakhmut might fall.
Russian artillery have been pounding the last routes out of the city, aiming to complete its encirclement, but the founder of the Wagner mercenary force leading the assault has said his troops are being deprived of ammunition by Moscow. Austin said that if Ukrainian forces decided to reposition west of Bakhmut, he would not view that as a strategic setback.