Battle for Bakhmut

At the G-7 summit in Hiroshima nuclear disarmament took back seat to Zelensky’s appeals to major powers of the world. Hiroshima, the site of this year’s G-7 conclave, is one of just a handful of places in the world that provides a stark reminder of the horrors of war. Though the final communique from the club of the richest did make vague commitment toward a “Hiroshima Vision”, only Russia-Ukraine war got the main headlines. As leaders make their journeys home, wars will continue. And Bakhmut—the main area of contention in recent months in eastern Ukraine—comes into focus.

The symbolic importance of the small city in Ukraine’s east now far outweighs any strategic value for either side.

Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated his troops and the Wagner Group private army for “liberating” the city on May 20, but Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that although Russian troops are in Bakhmut, the city is “not occupied”. But the city has already been raged to the ground. Perhaps they are fighting over a ghost city. One former Russian soldier and intelligence officer who led the original 2014-2015 uprising of separatists in Donbas region painted a bleaker picture despite Ukrainian setbacks. He described the capture of Bakhmut as not a victory in any tactical sense, but part of the Kremlin’s policy of “freezing the conflict through a compromise agreement”. In March Zelensky also echoed the same idea as he would say Bakhmut’s fall could allow Russia to rally international support for a deal that might require Kyiv to make ‘unacceptable compromises’.

The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground in the longest battle, and a series of comments from Ukrainian and Russian military officials added confusion to the matter. Both Russia and Ukraine have endured losses believed to be in the thousands, though neither side disclosed casualty numbers. It may be embarrassing for Putin and Zelensky as well. It is not known exactly how many troops on both sides have died in the conflict, but Moscow and Kyiv have both claimed to have killed hundreds in a single day.

But why has Bakhmut, a previously sleepy, nondescript city nestled away in the salt-mining region of eastern Ukraine, become so significant in the Russia-Ukraine war?

In order for Russia to advance further into Ukraine and achieve Putin’s aim of “liberating the Donbas”, Russia needs to capture Bakhmut.

However, the huge amount of emphasis that both sides have placed on the city goes far beyond any strategic value. If either side were to completely capture Bakhmut, they would then face a series of defensive lines positioned around it.

The city’s importance instead lies in the symbolic weight it has garnered over months of bitter, entrenched fighting.

For Ukraine, it has become an example of dogged, determined resistance. The city has seen some of the most intense fighting since Russia’s special military operation started in February 2022.

Russia, on the other hand, needs a victory. After its initial advances in the first months of its full-scale invasion, a successful Ukrainian counteroffensive reclaimed swathes of territory in a series of humiliating defeats for Russian forces.

As the Russian military lost face, the Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit hardened by years of deployments in Syria and various African nations, took on the fight for Bakhmut late last year.

A victory for Russia in Bakhmut could also be seen a victory for Prigozhin, the owner of Wagner and potentially raise his standing with the Kremlin.

The loss of the city could inflict a blow to morale for Ukraine after so many months of bitter fighting. It would come at a time when Ukraine is expected to launch a highly anticipated counteroffensive, which could raise concerns amongst Ukraine’s allies.

The fall of the city could be a huge morale boost for Russia, which is in need of its first major victory in more than 10 months.

Since the latter half of 2022, reports from the front lines of the war have tended to reflect Ukrainian advances in some areas and a grinding stalemate in others. Russia has launched several waves of drone and missile strikes at Ukrainian cities but claimed no significant territorial gains.

Strategically, a victory in Bakhmut could open up a path further west, possibly to Kramatorsk, a city with roughly 150,000 inhabitants before the war. However, Ukraine has heavily fortified the areas around the city of Bakhmut.


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Vol 55, No. 49, Jun 4 - 10, 2023