Heavy and sustained fighting for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region has been going on for more than seven months. According to local authorities, 60% of the city has been destroyed. Both Moscow and Kiev claim that the other side has suffered heavy losses.
In February, Western observers began to speculate that Ukrainian forces might abandon the defense of Bakhmut, and instead focus on launching their own counteroffensives. But why is the battle for Bakhmut still going on?
Is Bakhmut strategically important?
Russia’s initial attacks on Bakhmut may have been part of a wider plan to encircle Ukrainian army units near Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, according to Western analysts.
Sustained shelling of the eastern city began in mid-May last year, followed by a series of battles for control of its roads.
Moscow’s attack on the city is believed to have begun on 1 August. But just three weeks later, the offensive appeared to be ending, and between September and October, Ukraine launched a successful counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region, before reaching the Russian border.
After that, Russian military commanders seemed to lose interest in Bakhmut. But by then troops on both sides were already locked in stubborn battles for the city.
“Unfortunately, what happens, it’s like Verdun, when a lot of people start dying for a place, it doesn’t really matter. You’ve already spent blood capital,” explained Patrick Bury, associate professor at the University of Bath.
“And then because of the bloodshed, it becomes politically significant. Once people start attacking and need a win, it takes on a whole little world,” he told Euronews.
What does Bakhmut mean to Moscow?
For Russia, Bakhmut is a theoretical opportunity to declare victory, to “compensate” for military setbacks suffered last year. Indeed, by December Ukrainian and Western observers reported that Bakhmut had become Moscow’s primary target and that significant manpower had been deployed in an effort to capture it.
Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, called Bakhmut the key to a further offensive in Donbas. But Western experts doubt that Russia will have the capacity to build on its success if the city is captured.
“The Russians haven’t shown they’re good at breaking through yet in the way Ukraine has,” Bury explained.
“The Russian logistics are pretty bad, aren’t they? So if they do break through, they will still be slowed down by their logistical problems, which existed before this,” he added.
What does Bakhmut mean to Kyiv?
For Ukraine, Bakhmut has become a symbol of heroic resistance. Kiev points out that prolonged fighting near the city has locked down many Russian troops, preventing Moscow from conducting offensive operations elsewhere while inflicting heavy losses in manpower and equipment on Russian forces.
NATO estimates that five Russians are killed in Bakhmut for every Ukrainian casualty.
“What’s really going on is that the Ukrainians are using it as a defensive battle, basically a death war at this stage to inflict the maximum number of casualties on the Russian attackers at the lowest possible cost to themselves before unleashing a counter-blow or two against Russia at a time of Ukraine’s choosing and also a place of their choosing, Bury told Euronews.
Prigozhin and the Ministry of Defense conflict
Russia’s battle for Bakhmut also contains a unique dimension. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner PMC mercenaries have played a key role in Russia’s pursuit of the city.
The businessman is in fact in open conflict with the leadership of the Russian Armed Forces, to the point of exchanging insults with the Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.
Experts argue that Prigozhin’s ambitions may be a factor in why the battle for Bakhmut is raging.
“It became prominent when Wagner (…) really came to power and kind of said, ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to show you how to win.’ The Russian army is incompetent and we will do it!” And then they throw everything at (it),” Bury told Euronews.
Now the success or failure of Bakhmut could decide the fate of the PMCs and Prigozhin himself.