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Ukraine Sees Signs of Russia Shifting Front-Line Firepower Away From Bakhmut

BAKHMUT, Ukraine—Russian troops have tempered their assault on the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, Ukrainian commanders say, as stiff resistance forces Russian units to shift some of their firepower to surrounding areas.

Some Ukrainian officers and British military intelligence say that Russia is no longer hitting Bakhmut—a city that has assumed outsize importance to both sides—with the same ferocity as it was last month. The Ukrainian commanders say Russia has instead repositioned armored vehicles and artillery fire toward the nearby town of Soledar.

Bakhmut and Soledar are part of the same front, and fighting has ebbed and flowed around both cities before. An easing in clashes in one area doesn’t suggest the Russians have given up on taking Bakhmut entirely, but rather indicates that Ukraine’s resistance has forced a rethink.

Several Ukrainian officers say they believe that Russia, at least for now, has redirected fire from Bakhmut after struggling for months to take the city. Instead, Russia might seek to test Ukrainian defenses around Soledar and claw out a victory there, they say.

Since the autumn, Bakhmut and its surrounding area has emerged as one of the most hotly contested front lines of the entire war, with both sides pouring enormous amounts of troops and hardware into the front.

Ukraine’s top military commander, Valeriy Zaluzhny, said late Tuesday that the fighting in the Bakhmut area was the most challenging situation faced by his forces.

While it has little strategic significance, Bakhmut has acquired great importance for Wagner, the Russian paramilitary force that has sought to storm the city, as well as for Gen.

Sergei Surovikin,

who was appointed Russia’s military commander in Ukraine in October. Russian and Ukrainian forces have been fighting for Bakhmut, a city of 70,000 people, for around six months.

Russian forces have redirected some firepower from Bakhmut to the nearby city of Soledar

Russian forces have redirected some firepower from Bakhmut to the nearby city of Soledar

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Russian forces have redirected some firepower from Bakhmut to the nearby city of Soledar

Russian forces have redirected some firepower from Bakhmut to the nearby city of Soledar

Russian forces have redirected some firepower from Bakhmut to the nearby city of Soledar

Russian forces have redirected some firepower from Bakhmut to the nearby city of Soledar

Russian forces have redirected some firepower from Bakhmut to the nearby city of Soledar

Taking Bakhmut would have great psychological significance for Russia after a string of battlefield setbacks.

At a Ukrainian artillery position on the outskirts of Soledar, Russian ordnance has pummeled the surrounding area in recent days. Ukrainian howitzers hit back at what an artillery officer said were Russian positions outside of the city.

“They are changing their positions toward Soledar,” said Valery Yurik, a spokesman for the 46th Brigade, an airborne assault division.

A Russian artillery shell explodes and destroys a house on the outskirts of Soledar, eastern Ukraine.

“They need one small victory because they can’t take [Bakhmut],” added Mr. Yurik.

British military intelligence said Ukraine has committed significant reinforcements to Bakhmut, blunting Russian attacks at great cost for both sides. Russia is unlikely to achieve a breakthrough in the coming weeks, British intelligence said Tuesday.

At an antiaircraft position close to Bakhmut, the platoon commander said Russian fire had roughly halved in recent days and appeared to be redirected at Soledar.

At the same time, however, Serhii Cherevatyi, a spokesman for the Ukrainian forces in the east, said he hadn’t noticed a significant falloff in Russian artillery strikes at Bakhmut or a redirection of fire. In a recent 24-hour period, there were 224 artillery strikes in the area, he said.

Earlier this week, incoming explosions from Russian fire sounded every two minutes around Bakhmut, with Ukrainian forces firing around once a minute.

The wreckage of a building destroyed by two Russian missiles several weeks ago near Bakhmut, eastern Ukraine.

A 70-year-old woman in her home in Druzhkivka, eastern Ukraine, the day after her windows were destroyed by a Russian missile strike.

On Monday, a rocket landed some about 220 yards from the antiaircraft position of one unit of a mechanized brigade. The spent casing of a cluster bomb lay nearby in a field.

“They are looking for the weakest points in the Ukrainian system,” said an officer, who had ZU-23, the name of a Soviet antiaircraft gun, tattooed on his knuckles.

The flow of Ukrainian casualties from Bakhmut has slowed at one local hospital.

Andriy Zholob, the commander of the 46th Brigade’s medical unit, said Monday that he was conducting six or seven operations a day between Dec. 17-19, but hadn’t carried out one for the past two days. Operations included amputations, repairing severe stomach and chest wounds and removing pieces of shrapnel.

As understaffed Russian forces experience setbacks in Ukraine, the paramilitary Wagner Group has helped Moscow to gain territory and tapped prisoners to fight. WSJ explains how the Kremlin relies on the group, making it a prominent force in the conflict.

On Monday, smoke rose from Soledar, previously known for a cavernous salt mine whose elevator shaft towers above the city’s outer suburbs.

In the surrounding fields, fires and smoke rose from at least five craters, suggesting recent hits, while artillery fire from both sides continued at regular intervals. Three strikes hit one road, leaving two houses burning and partially ruined.

Near a makeshift barracks in a small, crumbling house, a Ukrainian artillery unit fired a battery of L119 British-made light howitzers at Russian positions less than 3 miles away.

Ukrainian soldiers on the outskirts of Soledar, eastern Ukraine.

The battery’s commander said Russian fire against Bakhmut had subsided somewhat in recent days. As he talked, Russian artillery pounded the surrounding area.

Russia is still concentrating its efforts on conducting offensive actions in the Bakhmut area, Ukrainian armed forces said in an operational update on Tuesday. Russian tanks and artillery fired at 20 settlements in the area, including Bakhmut itself and Soledar, and an area further north on Tuesday, it said.

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Despite the respite, Ukrainian soldiers remain on alert for a renewed Russian push on Bakhmut.

“We are expecting a counterattack at any time,” said a Ukrainian army captain during a break in the Bakhmut area.

Mr. Zholob, the commander of the medical unit, said things change fast. “It can be quiet for two or three days and then suddenly, there is a huge bombing,” he said.

Ukrainian soldiers remain on alert for a renewed Russian push on Bakhmut.

—Oksana Pyrzhok contributed to this article.

Write to Alistair MacDonald at Alistair.Macdonald@wsj.com

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