‘Wear them out’: Why Ukraine fought Russia for every inch of Bakhmut, despite high cost
Kyiv, Ukraine — The nine-month battle for Bakhmut destroyed the 400-year-old city in eastern Ukraine and killed tens of thousands in a mutually devastating display of Ukraine’s strategy of depleting the Russian military.
The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground on Sunday in the longest battle of the invasion: the Russian Defense Ministry reported that Wagner’s private army backed by Russian troops had seized from the city. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, said Bakhmut was not occupied by Russian forces.
Be that as it may, the small town has long had more symbolic than strategic value for both parties. The most significant measure of the success of the Ukrainian forces was their ability to hold the Russians down. The Ukrainian military aims to deplete Russian troop resources and morale in the tiny but tactical 1,500-kilometre (932-mile) frontline area as Ukraine prepares for a major counter-offensive in the 15 month war.
“Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “It gives us the possibility to enter the city in case the situation changes. And it will certainly happen.
About 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of Donetsk, the Russian-controlled regional capital, Bakhmut was an important industrial center, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines and home to around 80,000 people before the war, in a country of more of 43 million inhabitants.
The city, named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, was known for its sparkling wine produced in underground caves. It was popular among tourists for its wide, tree-lined avenues, lush parks, and stately downtown with imposing late 19th-century mansions that are all now reduced to a smoking wasteland.
The urban area itself has been so fiercely contested by Russia and Ukraine in recent months, where this week Ukrainian commanders acknowledged that Moscow controlled more than 90 percent of it. But even now, Ukrainian forces are making significant advances near strategic routes across the countryside just outside, nibbling Russia’s northern and southern flanks by the yard in a bid to encircle Wagner’s fighters at inside the city.
“The enemy failed to encircle Bakhmut. They lost part of the heights around the city. The continuous advance of our troops in the suburbs greatly complicates the presence of the enemy,” said Hanna Maliar, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister “Our troops took the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy.”
Ukrainian military leaders say their months-long resistance was worth it because it limited Russian capabilities elsewhere and enabled Ukrainian advances.
“The main idea is to wear them out and then attack,” Ukrainian Colonel Yevhen Mezhevikin, commander of a specialized combat group in Bakhmut, said on Thursday.
Russia has deployed reinforcements to Bakhmut to replenish the lost northern and southern flanks and prevent further Ukrainian breakthroughs, according to Ukrainian officials and other outside observers. Putin desperately needs to claim victory in the town of Bakhmut, where Russian forces have concentrated their efforts, analysts say, especially after a winter offensive by his forces failed to capture other towns and villages. along the forehead.
Some analysts have said that even Ukraine’s tactical gains in the rural area outside the city of Bakhmut could be bigger than it looks.
“It was almost as if the Ukrainians were taking advantage of the fact that the Russian lines were actually weak,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews. “The Russian army has suffered such high losses and is so exhausted around Bakhmut that it cannot advance any further.”
Ukrainian forces in the outskirts of Bakhmut and in the city came under relentless artillery attack until a month ago. Then Ukrainian forces positioned south of the city spotted their chance for a breakthrough after reconnaissance drones showed Russia’s southern flank had gone on the defensive, Colonel Mezhevikin said.
After weeks of fierce fighting, Ukrainian units had made their first advance in the vicinity of Bakhmut since its invasion nine months ago.
In total, nearly 20 square kilometers (eight square miles) of territory has been recaptured, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said in an interview last week. Hundreds of additional meters (yards) have been regained almost every day since, according to Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine’s Eastern Operational Command.
“Previously, we just held the lines and didn’t let the Russians advance further into our territory. What happened now is our first step forward (since the battle started),” Maliar said.
Victory at Bakhmut does not necessarily bring Russia closer to capturing the Donetsk region – Putin’s stated war goal. On the contrary, it opens the door to more fierce battles in the direction of Sloviansk or Kostiantynivka, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russian analyst at the American think tank Institute for the Study of War.
Satellite images released this week show infrastructure, apartment buildings and iconic buildings reduced to rubble.
Over the past week, days before Russia announced the city had fallen under their control, Ukrainian forces retained only a handful of buildings amid constant Russian shelling. Outnumbered and outgunned, they described nightmarish days.
The Russian artillery dominance was so overwhelming, accompanied by continuous waves of human mercenaries, that the defensive positions could not be held for long.
“The importance of our mission to stay in Bakhmut is to distract a large enemy force,” said Taras Deiak, commander of a special unit of a volunteer battalion. “We are paying a high price for this.”
The northern and southern flanks reclaimed by Ukraine are located near two highways that lead to Chasiv Yar, a town 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Bakhmut that serves as a key logistical supply route. The highway is nicknamed the “Highway of Life” and is used to transport troops and essential supplies to Bakhmut.
Ukrainian forces passing on this road were often under fire from the Russians positioned along the nearby strategic heights. Armored vehicles and pickup trucks heading into the city to replenish Ukrainian troops were frequently destroyed.
With the high plains now under Ukrainian control, his forces have more leeway.
“It will help us design new supply chains to deliver ammunition and evacuate injured or killed boys,” Deiak said, speaking from inside the city on Thursday, two days before Russia claimed control of the city. “Now it’s easier to deliver supplies, rotate troops, (perform) evacuations.”
Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.