LONDON (Reuters) – More than 90% of its inhabitants have fled, much of it in ruins, tens of thousands killed and its strategic importance downplayed by Pentagon and NATO chiefs. Yet Russia and Ukraine are still vying for the small city of Bakhmut.
After nearly eight months of trench warfare, Ukrainian troops are surrounded on three sides, Kiev’s supply lines are fraying, and Moscow is in control of just under half of Bakhmut. Still, Ukraine has promised to redouble the city’s defenses, even if both sides suffer heavy casualties.
Some leading Western military analysts have suggested that it might make sense for Ukrainian troops to fall back on a new fortified defense line, but Kiev doesn’t seem to be waiting for that anytime soon.
Volodymr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, has portrayed “Fortress Bakhmut” as a symbol of resistance that is bleeding the Russian army.
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For Moscow, the fall of the Soviet-era city it calls Artyomovsk would be its first major conquest since mid-2022 and a boost in the wider war against Ukraine. It also claims to decimate Ukrainian troops.
The city is in Ukrainian Donetsk, part of the largely Russian-speaking industrialized Donbas region that Moscow wants to annex with its self-declared “special military operation.”
It had a pre-war population of 70,000-80,000, but Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk said this month fewer than 4,000 civilians, including 38 children, were left behind.
Reminiscent of World War I, the Battle of Bakhmut was fought from trenches with relentless artillery and rocket attacks on a heavily mine-laden battlefield described by commanders on both sides as a “meat grinder”. There is also talk of house-to-house fighting.
The city has witnessed massacres before: during World War II, occupying Nazi troops drove 3,000 Jews into a nearby mine shaft and bricked them up, suffocating them.
Images of battlefields littered with corpses from both sides have surfaced on social media, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force that accounts for much of the fighting, has published a photo of his own dead fighters.
The number of casualties is classified, but US officials estimate that tens of thousands of Russian soldiers – many of them convicts recruited by Wagner – were killed. Thousands of Ukrainian troops were also reported to have been killed.
Zelenskiy said on Sunday his army had killed more than 1,100 Russians near Bakhmut and wounded another 1,500 in the past week. That same day, Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces had killed more than 220 Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine within 24 hours.
Reuters cannot verify the number of casualties on the battlefield.
Zelenskiy’s aide Mykhailo Podolyak said Ukraine continues to fight in Bakhmut as the battle traps and degrades Russia’s best units ahead of a planned spring Ukrainian 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.
Rob Lee, who was on the same trip, said on Twitter that while there were still valid reasons for Ukraine to continue to defend Bakhmut, its ability to inflict heavier casualties on its enemy had been weakened after Russian forces pushed the northern flank last month. had taken.
The Battle of Bakhmut The Battle of Bakhmut https://www.reuters.com/graphics/UKRAINE-CRISIS/gkplwlywwvb/chart.png
Bakhmut, a regional transportation and logistics hub, would be useful to Russian military forces, though that depends on how much of the infrastructure is intact.
More importantly, it would be a springboard for Russia to push on to two larger cities it has long coveted in the Donetsk region: Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Both would be within range of Russian artillery. Moscow must master both to complete what it calls the “liberation” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
Zelenskiy told CNN this month he feared Russian forces would have “an open road” to the two cities if they took Bakhmut, saying his order to hold it was a tactical decision.
The nearby town of Chasiv Yar, west of Bakhmut, would likely be next to be attacked by the Russians, although it is on higher ground and Ukrainian forces are believed to have built defenses nearby.
Western analysts and diplomats are skeptical that Russian forces could quickly capitalize on Bakhmut’s capture given that they have been fighting there for so long – shelling the city since May and launching a ground attack in August.
Russia’s chaotic withdrawal from northeastern Ukraine last year also deprived it of territory that would have made it easier for its forces to take towns like Sloviansk once they controlled Bakhmut.
For Russia, Bakhmut would be a battlefield win that boosts morale after a string of defeats last year.
For Ukraine, the loss of Bakhmut could erode morale, even if – as its allies say – it wouldn’t make much of a strategic difference.
Both Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg have downplayed Bakhmut’s possible fall as symbolic, as have Western military pundits.
As a sign of Bakhmut’s importance to Kiev, Zelenskiy presented the US Congress with a battle flag signed by the city’s defenders when he visited the United States in December.
Keeping the city helps maintain support from Western nations, proving it’s making a difference, said Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the US-based CAN think tank.
If the city falls, Ukraine could take solace in holding off Russian forces for so long and exacting such a high price for Bakhmut, suggesting any Russian attempt to take more territory would be equally costly.
The capture of the city would be a boost to Russia’s most high-profile mercenaries – Wagner Group – and their publicity-hungry founder Prigozhin.
Sanctioned in the West, the 61-year-old former convict and catering magnate has sought to curry favor with Putin and turn his team’s success on the battlefield into political clout.
While there is growing evidence that the Kremlin has taken measures to curb its excessive political influence, no one can dispute that Wagner mercenaries, including convicts recruited by Prigozhin, have played an important role as assault troops.
Some Western military experts believe that Ukraine’s goal is to destroy Wagner as a force in Bakhmut and that it will not be able to quickly replenish its ranks to pose a threat elsewhere in the short term.
“If Bakhmut is taken, Wagner will be a significantly downgraded force and his 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 during a visit to Bakhmut on Saturday that Kiev had good reasons to keep 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 the troops fighting there.
“The defense of Bakhmut gives us the chance to build reserves and prepare for the spring counter-offensive, which is not far away.”
(Reporting and writing by Andrew Osborn; editing by Tomasz Janowski)
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