The battle for the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut has been going on for over eight months, becoming one of the longest and bloodiest in the entire war between Russia and Ukraine. Soldiers are fighting hard house to house, making use of huge quantities of missiles and ammunition: the Russians are advancing slowly, but only a few meters a day and at the cost of exceptional losses. In recent months, tens of thousands of soldiers have died on both sides – with the most serious losses on the Russian side – and many others have been wounded and mutilated. Bakhmut is defined by both the Ukrainian and Russian governments as an essential battle, on which the fate of the next military operations could depend.
At the same time, Bakhmut is a very small town with no great military, geographical or strategic value. The two armies are stubborn – the Russians trying to conquer it at all costs and the Ukrainians in defending it to the bitter end – partly for political reasons, partly for military prestige and partly for war tactics that have little to do with town itself. For this reason, the decision of the Ukrainian military command to persist in defending Bakhmut, rather than implementing a strategic retreat as has already happened on other occasions, is viewed with some skepticism by Western allied governments, who fear that Ukraine is wasting soldiers and means without obtaining particular advantages.
Bakhmut is a small town in the Donbass region, east of Ukraine, which had about 70,000 inhabitants before the Russian invasion. Fighting in its surroundings began in August 2022, when the Russian army reached the area to the east after occupying another small town, Popasna, from which the Ukrainians had withdrawn. Since then, the urban warfare in the city has only become increasingly violent, with the Russians sending waves of tens of thousands of soldiers – often young conscripts or criminals released from prisons with the promise of a reduced sentence – to fight street by street, and the Ukrainians who remained to defend a city now reduced to rubble, instead of retreating as they had done in other circumstances.
In eight months, Russia has managed to advance at a very slow pace, a few meters a day, and bearing very high human costs, but by now it seems very close to conquering it: the town is almost completely surrounded. A large part of the fighting was supported by the Wagner mercenary group, which fights alongside Russian forces and has employed thousands of people taken from Russian prisons.
According to various journalists who have visited Bakhmut in recent days, the Ukrainian army still controls about 25 percent of the town, and above all a road that leads out of the city and connects to the west and the rest of the Ukrainian lines. The road is heavily defended and it is essential that it is not occupied by the Russians, because it is the only link left to the Ukrainians with the rest of their army, and it is the only safe route for an eventual withdrawal. Should the Russians succeed in taking that one road, the Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut would be completely surrounded.
Given the tenacity of the Ukrainian resistance, however, it is not yet clear when Bakhmut will definitely fall. For weeks now both the Russian military and the head of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, have periodically made announcements that Bakhmut has been conquered, only to be proven wrong.
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The battle of Bakhmut is being fought at exceptional levels of violence, caused in part by the style of fighting – urban guerrilla warfare, which is necessarily a close-quarters type of engagement, in which the two sides frequently come into contact – and in it starts from the fact that neither Russians nor Ukrainians seem willing to give in. Losses are very high and the war scenes are extremely bloody. A Ukrainian officer told the New York Times that the Russians recently used a tank cannon to blow a large hole in an apartment building that housed Ukrainian soldiers, and that Russian soldiers then entered through the hole to fight with the Ukrainians floor by floor, apartment by apartment. At that point the Ukrainians decided to fill the apartment building with explosives, quickly get out and blow everything up, while the Russians were still inside.
The problem is that even Bakhmut, from a purely military point of view, is not of great value. It is located on the road leading to the most important Ukrainian cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, and therefore it is an obligatory passage if the Russian army wants to advance, but other than that there are no particular reasons why its conquest would be more important than that of another nearby town. It is not close to a large river that could form a natural defense line (it is crossed by the Bakhmuta, a small river that has already been crossed by the Russians), nor does it control an important logistics hub, as is the case with other cities in the region.
In January John Kirby, the spokesman for the US National Security Council, argued that even if the Ukrainians lose Bakhmut “there would be no strategic impact on the war”.
Yet the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has said on more than one occasion that Ukraine does not intend to withdraw from the “Bakhmut fortress”, and has defined the defense of the town as heroic. During his December visit to the US Congress, Zelensky brought as a gift a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers defending the front in Bakhmut, making the city an international symbol. On the other hand, Russian propaganda presented the battle of Bakhmut as a turning point in the war, even comparing it to the famous battle of Stalingrad in World War II.
The reasons why both Russians and Ukrainians resist Bakhmut are different.
For Russia, the question is above all political and military prestige. On the one hand, there is the fact that the Russian army’s winter offensive has effectively failed: in recent months there have been very few military conquests, and being able to occupy Bakhmut would give Russia the chance to claim at least one victory. It is also likely that the Russian military command hopes that once Bakhmut is conquered and the urban warfare is ended, it will be easier for the army to knock out Ukrainian defenses in the open countryside and sweep into the rest of the region. However, military experts are skeptical of this possibility.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner group, also contributes to the Russian stubbornness towards Bakhmut, who hopes to obtain a personal victory that he can use to increase his own prestige and influence within Russian politics.
The reasons why the Ukrainian army persists in Bakhmut have to do with prestige and pride (too much symbolic importance has been attributed to the town to be able to give it up), but also more concrete elements. In recent months, the Ukrainian army has used Bakhmut to implement a strategy of attrition against the Russian army: using the context of urban warfare, in which the superiority of Russian artillery is less decisive, to try to weaken as many opposing forces as possible.
For a few months, this strategy worked, not least because Russia continued to send inexperienced recruits or badly armed ex-convicts to Bakhmut, most of whom were eliminated. The Ukrainian forces suffered many losses, but overall the most damaged army was the Russian one, at least according to the estimates of most analysts. In recent weeks, however, things have become more complicated, both because the Ukrainians now have only a small corner of territory left in the urban area, and because the Ukrainian losses are also starting to become huge. At this point, it appears that Ukraine is resisting Bakhmut mostly with the intention of keeping the Russian military pinned down as much as possible and allowing the rest of the Ukrainian forces to prepare for a counter-offensive that is expected to begin sometime in the spring.
It is not clear whether this strategy is the most suitable, or whether instead Ukraine is wasting its resources. Many military experts say they are dubious.
In any case, it now seems that Ukrainian resistance to Bakhmut is winding down. Daniele Raineri, who has been to Bakhmut in recent days, wrote in Repubblica: «Kiev’s soldiers are withdrawing and for now the government won’t admit it. They have already begun to move part of their forces out of the siege through the passage to the West under Russian fire.’