It is thought that Russia is on the verge of taking Ukraine’s eastern city of Bakhmut in one of the war’s most brutal battles to date.
For months, Ukrainian soldiers have bravely held back Vladimir Putin’s endless waves of expendable troops in rows of sodden trenches in scenes reminiscent of World War I.
But the pressure is starting to take its toll, with reports on the ground saying Bakhmut is now surrounded from the north, east and south, leaving only one escape route – a treacherous swamp to the west.
JUSTIN BRONK, a research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says the city has taken on a significance to both Russian and Ukrainian commanders beyond its position and size.
Below he analyzes the importance of the Battle of Bakhmut for both sides in the conflict and for the outcome of the war itself.
He also discusses rumors that the heavy losses suffered by members of the Wagner mercenary company could be part of a deliberate strategy by Putin to eliminate the group as a political threat.
Pictured: A map showing the rough position of troops around the besieged city of Bakhmut. Russian troops approach from the north, east and south, leaving Ukraine’s defenders with only one route (west) to escape – across a muddy swamp. As Russian troops move in, the window to retreat closes, but Ukraine is determined to continue defending the symbolic city
The vicious battle for the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine continues despite a steadily deteriorating tactical situation for the Ukrainian defenders; as both sides reportedly deploy reinforcements to bolster their positions.
Russian forces – especially from the Wagner mercenary company – have been conducting assault operations against the city since early August last year, making it one of the longest battles of the war.
This is surprising in many ways, as the city of Bakhmut itself is not particularly strategically important.
If Ukrainian troops are forced to withdraw from the remaining parts of the city they control, they will be able to count on numerous fortified defense lines that stand between Russian troops and the more important cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.
Compared to their positions in the nearly encircled city of Bakhmut, retreating to a defensive line a little further west would undoubtedly be easier for the Ukrainian army from a casualty and logistical point of view.
However, the city has significance for both Russian and Ukrainian commanders beyond its position and size.
For Russia, the city is considered important for two main reasons.
Ukrainian soldiers in a trench under Russian shelling on the frontline close to the besieged city
Of course, it offers the chance for a symbolic victory after a disastrous first year of the invasion of Ukraine – something that President Putin and his military and security elite are only too happy to present to the Russian people.
In mid-January, Russian propaganda channels proclaimed the capture of the smaller remote town of Soledar north of Bakhmut, despite its limited strategic value, precisely because it was one of the first military developments that may have come to the Russian public as good news.
Bakhmut would be a bigger prize, and so for Putin himself it has a symbolic value that is greater than its practical significance.
The other reason why Bakhmut has unusual significance for Russia’s military and political leadership is that the head of the Wagner mercenary group Yevgeny Prigozhin is heavily deploying his troops to take the city from August 2022, particularly as a way to already considerable power and influence within the city. the Russian state at the expense of the Russian army.
He has publicly criticized senior Russian military officials, including Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, for their warfare, and complained repeatedly when statements from the Russian government failed to give his troops the credit he believed they deserved for the conquest from Solarar.
The Wagner Group recruited tens of thousands of convicts from prisons across Russia, promising that those who survive six months of fighting in Ukraine will be pardoned and released.
The relentless Russian bombardment has reduced Bakhmut to a smoldering wasteland with few buildings still standing
It has used these condemned soldiers for large-scale infantry assaults with heavy artillery fire to slowly tear down Ukrainian defense positions around Bakhmut, at the cost of horrific casualties for very slow progress.
Ultimately, however, there is a limited supply of even these poorly trained cannon fodder troops, and in recent months Wagner has had to commit more of his well-trained elite troops to the bitterest of battles, alongside regular and conscripted Russian military troops.
As brutal trench and house-to-house fighting continues, alongside heavy shelling by both sides, Wager is now losing hundreds of his most valuable and experienced personnel.
These losses, combined with significant shortages of artillery ammunition facing the Russian armed forces as a whole, have led to the suggestion that the Russian military is deliberately limiting support to Wager so that his forces are eventually used up in heavy fighting at Bakhmut.
This would potentially make the group, and Prigozhin himself, less of a political threat to the mainstream Russian military leadership.
On the other hand, a victory at Bakhmut, arguably achieved by mostly Wagner forces, despite apparently limited Russian military support, may have political significance within the Russian system that outweighs the city’s real importance on the battlefield .
Ukrainian soldiers (pictured) have been fighting from trenches around the city for months
For Ukraine, the strategy since August has been to use the fighting around Bakhmut and Soledar to inflict heavy casualties on Russian forces while deploying as few of their own mobile reserve units as possible.
By trading slow terrain and significant numbers of their own soldiers for horrific Russian losses, the battles to date have greatly diminished Russia’s ability to conduct large-scale offensive operations across a wider front.
Despite attacks on Ukrainian positions along the Donbas front lines since mid-February, especially at Avdiivka, Marinka and Vuhledar, the Russian winter offensive has so far been very costly and yielded little meaningful progress.
The Russian army simply does not have enough, even moderately trained, infantry or vehicle crews and is short of artillery ammunition.
The fighting around Bakhmut since August has used up large numbers of infantry and artillery ammunition and thus contributed significantly to these shortages.
However, with Russian forces slowly capturing Soledar and other small towns on the outskirts of Bakhmut itself, the remaining positions in the town are becoming increasingly expensive for Ukraine to maintain.
The inward and outward supply routes are fired upon from Russian positions to the north and south of the remaining roads, and infantry attacks are continuously launched from three sides against the remaining defensive positions.
Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer at Russian positions
By continuing to deploy and hold out more troops, Ukraine now risks suffering such heavy casualties that it undermines its own ability to launch another major counter-offensive in the spring.
The decision to do so suggests that Ukrainian commanders still believe the fighting is depleting Russian strength more severely than their own, but it is also possible that this is a misjudgment based on the understandable emotional desire not to retreat from the ground so brave and held. fighting at such expense for so many months.
While time will tell the ultimate significance of the Battle of Bakhmut within the wider war, the vicious trench warfare and near-complete destruction of what was a normal city in May 2022 are already a powerful symbol of the wanton destruction wrought by Russia on Ukraine has been unleashed. invasion.
For military professionals and politicians, it is also a poignant reminder of why the West has designed its own armed forces to conduct rapid maneuver warfare under the cover of devastating precision firepower from the air.
This kind of air superiority is not essential to modern warfare, but the stark destruction and terrible casualties of the artillery and trench warfare around Bakhmut is an example of what warfare looks like without it.