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Bakhmut: Why Russia and Ukraine are fighting so hard over one small city IV News

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Over 90% of its population has fled, much of it is in ruins, tens of thousands have been killed and its military importance has been downplayed by the Ministry of Defense and NATO officials. Immediately Russians and Ukrainians are still fighting for the small city of Bakhmut.

After nearly eight months of trench warfare, Ukrainian forces are surrounded on three sides, Kyiv’s supply lines are breaking, and Moscow controls almost half of Bakhmut. However, Ukraine has vowed to redouble its defenses of the city, even if both sides suffer heavy casualties.

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Some leading Western military experts have suggested that it might make sense for Ukrainian forces to fall back to a new fortified defensive line, but Kyiv shows no signs of doing so for now.

Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskiy has described “Fortress Bakhmut” as a symbol of defiance bleeding the Russian army dry.

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For Moscow, the fall of the Soviet-era city it calls Artyomovsk would be its first major capture since mid-2022 and a boost to its wider war against Ukraine. It also claims to be destroying Ukrainian forces.

What is Bakhmut?

The city is in Donetsk, Ukraine, part of the industrialized, mostly Russian-speaking Donbas region that Moscow wants to annex with its “special military operation.”

It had a pre-war population of 70,000-80,000, but Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said this month that fewer than 4,000 civilians, including 38 children, were believed to remain.

Reminiscent of the First World War, the battle for Bakhmut has been fought from trenches with relentless artillery and rocket attacks across a heavily mined battlefield described as a “meat grinder” by commanders on both sides. It has also involved house-to-house fighting.

The city has seen slaughter in the past: during World War II, Nazi occupation soldiers herded 3,000 Jews into a nearby mine shaft, walled it up, and suffocated them.

Killing zone?

Images of battlefields littered with corpses from both sides have appeared on social media, and Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Russian Wagner mercenary unit that is doing much of the fighting, has posted a photo of his own dead fighters.

Casualty figures are classified, but US officials estimate that tens of thousands of Russian soldiers – many of them convicts recruited by Wagner – were killed. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are also believed to have died.

Zelenskiy said on Sunday that his forces had killed more than 1,100 Russians near Bakhmut last week and wounded another 1,500. On the same day, the Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had killed more than 220 Ukrainian soldiers in eastern Ukraine within 24 hours.

Reuters cannot confirm the number of casualties on the battlefield.

Zelenskiy’s aide, Mykhailo Podolyak, said Ukraine is fighting on in Bakhmut because the battle is to pin down Russia’s best forces and humiliate them before Ukraine’s planned counteroffensive this spring.

Konrad Muzyka, a Polish military expert who recently visited the Bakhmut area with colleagues, said he believed it no longer made strategic sense to hold the city.

“The decision to defend Bakhmut is now political and not military,” Muzyka told Reuters, saying the scale and cost of Ukraine’s losses outweighed the benefits of keeping the city from a military point of view.

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 deter its enemy had weakened after Russian forces seized the northern gate last month.

Bakhmut, Bakhmut news, Russia Ukraine war, What is Bakhmut, Bakhmut importance, Indian Express
Ukrainian service members fire front-line M119 howitzers, amid the Russian attack on Ukraine, near the city of Bakhmut, Ukraine. (Reuters photo)

Springboard for Russia?

Bakhmut, a regional logistics and logistics hub, would be useful to Russian forces, although it depends on how much of its infrastructure remains intact.

More importantly, it would be a step for Russia to advance to two larger cities it has long coveted in the Donetsk region: Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

Both would be within range of Russian artillery. Moscow needs to control both to complete what it calls its “liberation” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

Zelenskiy told CNN this month that he feared Russian forces would have an “open road” to the two cities if they took Bakhmut, and said his order to hold it was a tactical decision.

The nearby town of Chasiv Yar, west of Bakhmut, would likely come under Russian attack, although it is on higher ground and Ukrainian forces are believed to have built fortifications nearby.

Western experts and diplomats are skeptical that Russian forces could quickly capitalize on the capture of Bakhmut, given how long they have been fighting there – shelling the city since May and launching a ground assault in August.

Russia’s chaotic withdrawal from northeastern Ukraine last year also stripped it of territory that would have made it easier for its forces to capture cities like Sloviansk once they had taken control of Bakhmut.

Bakhmut, Bakhmut news, Russia Ukraine war, What is Bakhmut, Bakhmut importance, Indian Express A Ukrainian soldier smokes a cigarette standing on top of a tank near Bakhmut, Ukraine. (AP Photo)

A psychological boost?

For the Russians, Bakhmut would be a moral victory on the battlefield after a string of defeats last year.

For Ukraine, Bakhmut’s loss could dampen morale, even if — as its allies say — it might not make much of a strategic difference.

Both Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg have downplayed Bakhmut’s potential fall as symbolic, as have Western military experts.

As a sign of Bakhmut’s importance to Kyiv, Zelenskiy presented the US Congress with a battle flag signed by the city’s defenders when he visited the US in December.

Holding the city helps maintain support from Western countries, which proves it matters, according to Michael Kofman, a Russian military expert at the US-based think tank CAN.

If the city falls, Ukraine could take solace in the fact that it held off Russian forces for so long and got such a high price for Bakhmut, suggesting that any Russian attempt to take more territory is similarly costly.

Working for Wagner?

The capture of the city would be a boost for Russia’s best-known mercenaries – the Wagner Group – and their publicity-hungry founder Prigozhin.

The 61-year-old ex-convict and restaurant tycoon, who faces sanctions in the West, has tried to curry favor with Putin, putting the success of his campaign into political influence.

Although mounting evidence suggests that the Kremlin has moved to curb what it sees as his excessive political dominance, no one could dispute that Wagner’s mercenaries, including prosecutors hired by Prigozhin, have played a major role role as attacking troops.

Some Western military experts believe that Ukraine’s goal is to destroy Wagner as a fighting force in Bakhmut, and that it will not be able to quickly replenish its ranks to pose a threat elsewhere any time soon.

“If Bakhmut is captured, Wagner will be a severely depleted force and its ability to sustain attacks on Ukrainian positions will be questionable,” said Muzyka, a Polish expert.

General Oleksandr Syrskyi, head of Ukraine’s ground forces, said on Saturday during a visit to Bakhmut that Kyiv had good reason 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 soldiers fighting there. “The defense of Bakhmut gives us the opportunity to gather reserves and prepare for the spring counteroffensive, which is not far off.”


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