Heavy and persistent fighting over the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region lasted more than seven months. According to local authorities, 60% of the city has been destroyed. Both Moscow and Kiev say the other side has suffered heavy losses.
In February, Western observers began to speculate that Ukrainian forces might abandon Bakhmut’s defense and focus instead on launching their own counter-offensives. But why is the battle for Bakhmut still raging?
Is Bakhmut strategically important?
Russia’s initial attacks on Bakhmut may have been part of a larger plan to encircle Ukrainian army units near Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, according to Western analysts.
Sustained bombardment of the eastern city began in mid-May last year, followed by a series of battles for control of its streets.
Moscow’s assault on the city is believed to have begun on August 1. But just three weeks later, the offensive seemed to peter out, and between September and October, Ukraine conducted a successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region before reaching the Russian border.
Subsequently, Russian military commanders seemed to lose interest in Bakhmut. But by that time, the troops of both sides were already mired in stubborn battles for the city.
“Unfortunately, what happens, it’s like Verdun, once a lot of people start dying for a place, it doesn’t matter. You’ve already spent the blood capital,” explained Patrick Bury, an Associate Professor at the University of Bath.
“And then because of that bloodshed it becomes politically significant. Once people start attacking and they need a victory, it takes on a whole little world of its own,” he told RockedBuzz via Euronews.
What does Bakhmut mean for Moscow?
For Russia, Bakhmut is a theoretical opportunity to declare victory, to “compensate” for the military setbacks it suffered last year. Indeed, in December, Ukrainian and Western observers reported that Bakhmut had become Moscow’s main target and that he had deployed a significant manpower in an attempt to capture it.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu called Bakhmut the key to a further offensive in Donbass. But Western experts doubt Russia will have the ability to build on its success if the city is taken.
“The Russians have not yet shown that they are as good at making breakthroughs as Ukraine has,” Bury explained.
“Russian logistics are pretty bad, right? So if they break through, they will still be slowed down by their own logistical problems, which existed before,” he added.
What does Bakhmut mean for Kiev?
For Ukraine, Bakhmut has become a symbol of heroic resistance. Kiev points out that sustained fighting near the city has pinned down many Russian troops, preventing Moscow from conducting offensive operations elsewhere, inflicting heavy losses of men and equipment on Russian forces.
NATO estimates that five Russians are killed in Bakhmut for every Ukrainian casualty.
“What is really happening is that the Ukrainians are using it as a defensive battle, basically a set-piece battle at this stage to inflict as many casualties on the Russian attackers at the least possible cost to themselves before they mount a counterattack or two against Russia at a time of Ukraine’s choosing and also in a place of their choosing,” Bury told RockedBuzz via Euronews.
Conflict between Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defence
Russia’s battle for Bakhmut also includes a unique dimension. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s PMC Wagner mercenaries played a key role in Russia’s pursuit of the city.
The entrepreneur is, in fact, in open conflict with the leaders of the Russian armed forces, to the point of exchanging insults with the chief of staff Valery Gerasimov.
Experts say Prigozhin’s ambitions may be one reason why the battle for Bakhmut is raging.
“It came to the fore when Wagner […] he really came to power and he kind of said, “we’ll do it, we’ll show you how to win.” The Russian military is incompetent and we will!’ And then they throw everything [it]”, Bury told RockedBuzz via Euronews.
Now Bakhmut’s success or failure could determine the fate of the PMCs and Prigozhin himself.