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Explainer-Bakhmut: Why Russia and Ukraine are battling so hard for one small city

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Over 90 percent of its residents have fled, much of it lies in ruins, tens of thousands have been killed, and its strategic importance has been played down by the Pentagon and NATO chiefs. Yet Russia and Ukraine are still battling for the small city of Bakhmut.

After nearly eight months of trench warfare Ukrainian forces are surrounded on three sides, Kyiv’s supply lines are fraying, and Moscow is in control of just under half of Bakhmut. Still, Ukraine has pledged to double down on the city’s defense even as both sides take heavy casualties.

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Some leading Western military analysts have suggested it might make sense for Ukrainian forces to fall back to a new fortified defensive line, but Kyiv shows no sign of doing that for now.

Volodymr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, has portrayed ”Fortress Bakhmut” as a symbol of defiance which is bleeding the Russian military dry.

For Moscow, the fall of the city it calls by its Soviet-era name of Artyomovsk, would be its first major capture since mid-2022 and a boost in its wider war against Ukraine. It also claims to be decimating Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian service members carry coffins with the bodies of their brothers-in-arms Oleh and Mykyta Khomiuk, father and son who were killed in a fight against Russian troops in Bakhmut on March 2, during the funeral in Kyiv, Ukraine March 10, 2023. (Reuters)
Ukrainian service members carry coffins with the bodies of their brothers-in-arms Oleh and Mykyta Khomiuk, father and son who were killed in a fight against Russian troops in Bakhmut on March 2, during the funeral in Kyiv, Ukraine March 10, 2023. (Reuters)

What is Bakhmut?

The city is in Ukraine’s Donetsk, part of the largely Russian-speaking industrialized Donbas region which Moscow wants to annex with its self-declared “special military operation.”

It had a pre-war population of 70,000-80,000, but Deputy Ukrainian Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said this month that fewer than 4,000 civilians, including 38 children, were thought to remain.

Reminiscent of World War One, the battle for Bakhmut has been fought from trenches with relentless artillery and rocket strikes across a heavily-mined battlefield described as a “meat grinder” by commanders on both sides. It has also involved house-to-house fighting.

The city has witnessed slaughter before: during World War Two, occupying Nazi troops herded 3,000 Jews into a nearby mine shaft and bricked it up, suffocating them.

Killing zone?

Images of battlefields strewn with corpses from both sides have surfaced on social media, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force which is doing much of the fighting, has published a picture of his own dead fighters.

Casualty figures are classified, but US officials estimate that tens of thousands of Russian soldiers - many of them convicts recruited by Wagner - have been killed. Thousands of Ukrainian troops are believed to have died too.

Zelenskyy said on Sunday that his army had killed more than 1,100 Russians near Bakhmut in the past week and wounded a further 1,500. That same day, Russia’s defense ministry said its forces had killed more than 220 Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine within 24 hours.

Reuters is unable to verify battlefield casualty figures.

Zelenskyy’s aide Mykhailo Podolyak said Ukraine is fighting on in Bakhmut because the battle is pinning down Russia’s best units and degrading them ahead of a planned Ukrainian spring counter-offensive.

Konrad Muzyka, a Polish military analyst who recently visited the Bakhmut area with colleagues, said he thought it no longer made military sense to hold the city.

“The decision to defend Bakhmut is now a political one not a military one,” Muzyka told Reuters, saying the scale and the costs of Ukrainian losses now outweighed the benefits of holding the city from a military point of view.

Rob Lee, who was on the same trip, said on Twitter that while there were still valid reasons for Ukraine to keep defending Bakhmut, its ability to inflict heavier losses on its enemy had weakened after Russian forces seized the northern flank last month.

This video grab taken from a video posted on Telegram channel @concordgroup_official on March 3, 2023, shows Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner speaking to the camera from a rooftop at an undisclosed location. (AFP)
This video grab taken from a video posted on Telegram channel @concordgroup_official on March 3, 2023, shows Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner speaking to the camera from a rooftop at an undisclosed location. (AFP)

Springboard for Russia?

A regional transport and logistics hub, Bakhmut would be useful for Russian forces although that depends on how much of its infrastructure is intact.

More importantly, it would provide a stepping stone for Russia to advance on two bigger cities it has long coveted in the Donetsk region: Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

Both would be in easy range of Russian artillery. Moscow needs to control both to complete what it calls its “liberation” of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk.”

Zelenskyy told CNN this month that he feared Russian forces would have “an open road” to the two cities if they took Bakhmut, and said his order to hold it was a tactical decision.

The nearby town of Chasiv Yar, west of Bakhmut, would probably be next to come under Russian attack, though it is on higher ground and Ukrainian forces are believed to have built defensive fortifications nearby.

Western analysts and diplomats are skeptical that Russian forces could swiftly capitalize on Bakhmut’s capture given how long they have been fighting there - shelling the city since May and having launched a ground assault in August.

Russia’s chaotic withdrawal from Ukraine’s northeast last year also deprived it of territory that would have made it easier for its forces to seize cities like Sloviansk once they had control of Bakhmut.

Psychological boost?

For Russia, Bakhmut would be a morale-boosting battlefield win after a string of defeats last year.

For Ukraine, the loss of Bakhmut could sap morale, even if - as its allies say - it might not make much of a strategic difference.

Both Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and NATO head Jens Stoltenberg have played down the potential fall of Bakhmut as symbolic, as have Western military experts.

In a sign of Bakhmut’s importance for Kyiv, Zelenskyy presented the US Congress with a battle flag signed by the city’s defenders when he visited the United States in December.

This photograph taken on February 27, 2023, shows a destroyed and burnt residential building as the distance shelling continues in Bakhmut, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)
This photograph taken on February 27, 2023, shows a destroyed and burnt residential building as the distance shelling continues in Bakhmut, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (AFP)

Retaining the city helps sustain support from Western countries, proving it is making a difference, according to Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the US-based CAN think-tank.

If the city does fall, Ukraine could take comfort from the fact that it held off Russian forces for so long and extracted such a high price for Bakhmut, suggesting any Russian attempt to take more territory would be similarly costly.

Win for Wagner?

The city’s capture would be a boost for Russia’s most high-profile mercenaries - Wagner Group - and their publicity-hungry founder Prigozhin.

The 61-year-old former convict and catering tycoon, who is sanctioned in the West, has been trying to curry favor with Putin and parlay his outfit’s battlefield success into political influence.

While mounting evidence suggests the Kremlin has moved to curb what it sees as his excessive political clout, nobody could dispute that Wagner mercenaries, including convicts recruited by Prigozhin, have played a major role as assault troops.

Some Western military experts believe Ukraine’s goal is to destroy Wagner as a fighting force in Bakhmut and that it will be unable to swiftly replenish its ranks to pose a threat elsewhere anytime soon.

“If Bakhmut is taken, Wagner will be a significantly degraded force and its ability to sustain attacks on Ukrainian positions will be questionable,” said Muzyka, the Polish analyst.

Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said on Saturday during a visit to Bakhmut that Kyiv had good reason to hold the city.

“The real heroes now are the defenders who hold the eastern front on their shoulders and inflict maximum losses on the enemy,” he told troops fighting there.

“The defense of Bakhmut gives us a chance to accumulate reserves and prepare for the spring counter-offensive, which is not far off.”

Read more:

Russia would get ‘open road’ into Ukraine if Bakhmut falls: Zelenskyy

Fall of Bakhmut symbolic win for Russia, US Defense Secretary Austin says

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