Before and after images of the destroyed Ukrainian town of Bakhmut
A year ago, the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, home to some 70,000 people, was locally known for its salt mines and sparkling wine. Today it is a symbol of Russia’s brutal and relentless war.
For months, the two armies have been heavily shelling the city, as shown in a video recently released by the Ukrainian army.
Ukrainian forces have repelled Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenaries – many of whom were released from Russian prisons and sent to the front after only brief training – since the fall, making the Battle of Bakhmut the longest of the war.
Over the weekend, Moscow claimed to have taken Bakhmut, but Kyiv denied it, saying its forces were still clinging to a small part of the city and staging counterattacks as part of a plan to encircle The area.
Most civilians fled. The leafy streets are now scorched landscapes, as seen in before and after satellite images from Maxar Technologies. Aerial imagery from around 10 square miles of Bakhmut reveals how homes, schools, shops and a red-roofed theater were flattened.
If the city fell to Russia – as President Vladimir Putin claims – it would be the only significant territorial gain for Moscow since last summer. For Ukrainians, Bakhmut has come to represent resistance. In December, President Volodymyr Zelensky called the city “a fortress of our morale”.
The value of the city at this point is more a matter of politics and morals than strategy. Leaked US intelligence documents showed Washington had warned Ukraine that it would not be able to hold Bakhmut and urged kyiv to drop the fight.
During a weekend visit to Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945, Zelensky said the images of ruins “totally reminded me of Bakhmut and other settlements and towns similar”.
“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,” he said, referring to what little remains of the centuries-old city.
Ukrainian officials and military personnel on the ground said Ukrainian forces now hold only a small part of the town, near a destroyed statue of a Soviet MiG-17 fighter jet. However, Ukraine made gains on the southern and northern flanks, potentially opening the way for a counterattack.
Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, described the approach as a “semi-encirclement”, which would force Russian troops to go on the defensive. On Monday, Maliar wrote on Telegram that defending Bakhmut had served a military purpose.
“Huge losses were inflicted on the enemy; we bought time for some actions that we will talk about later,” she wrote.
Some analysts believe that the Russian lines could be stretched in Bakhmut if Moscow defended the city without the help of Wagner’s troops, who would have led the fight in the west of the city. On Monday, a Telegram account affiliated with Wagner founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin said mercenary soldiers would start leaving the city on Thursday.
“It’s a Pyrrhic victory,” said James Rands, an analyst at Janes, a London-based military intelligence firm. “We don’t know how many defeats Russia have suffered, but it’s a lot. It’s a lot of time and energy and all they have is a bit of rubble.
Bakhmut’s tragic devastation — symbolic weight aside — could serve at least one strategic function for Ukraine, some analysts say. Even if the city itself was not considered vital to Russia’s war objectives before the Wagner Group made it a priority, the prolonged combat could draw Russian resources away from other objectives. “There will be somewhere along the front lines where Russia will try to push,” Rand said. “If you hold them back and keep the fight going there, it’s an absolutely devastated city – but you kept that fire in one place.”
Taylor reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Claire Parker and Jennifer Hassan contributed to this report.