Why Bakhmut? This is an issue older than the war in Ukraine.
Just weeks before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the town of Bakhmut in December, a soldier with the military call sign “Bear” was staring out the window of a crumbling sixth-floor apartment overlooking the east of town. I stood quietly next to him. The battle below was fought with quiet ferocity.
Rockets lit up the sky. A tank was burning in the distance. To the south, Russian incendiary rounds floated downward, the thin arc of white flame igniting small fires on the ground but nothing else. There was nothing left to burn, the area already bombed to what seemed like oblivion.
“Bakhmut,” I wrote in my diary, “is in bad shape.”
It was a long night of hundreds, as Bakhmut became the focal point of some of the fiercest fighting of the war – the object of keen desire for Russia and tenacious defense of Ukraine. And now the town of Bakhmut appears to have fallen to the Russians after 10 months of fierce fighting, leaving thousands of soldiers wounded or killed, and a lingering question: how does a nondescript town the world has never heard of come to be? it became the place where the two parties decided to fight until the end, at all costs?
“Looks like all the vultures are here,” a soldier sent me as throngs of reporters showed up as the city looked set to fall in March. “Where were you before it got so bad?”
The trajectory of a war is unknowable. Combatants, political winds and military strategy have their say in the battles fought and the violence that ensues. Bakhmut, a former Cossack outpost that was a mining town at the start of the war, found itself where two armies collided. Pride, defiance and stubbornness quickly gave the city an outsized importance.
Falluja, Iraq was unknown to much of the world until the US tried to stamp out a growing insurgency in 2004. There have been two separate battles for the town, one lasting three weeks , the second six. They were intense but much smaller than the destruction and loss of Bakhmut.
Gettysburg was a rolling landscape of hills and fields typical of southern Pennsylvania, but it was there that three days of futile fighting shattered Robert E. Lee’s prospects of turning the Civil War in his favor. Iwo Jima was nothing more than a crust of an island in the Pacific, but the United States needed it for long-range bombers, and the struggle to control it became one of the most grueling battles ever. of World War II.
But whether it’s Bakhmut or Iwo Jima or Falluja, the end of the battle, no matter the stakes or the winner, is always the same: unfathomable loss and reckoning with what comes next. How do you remember the dead and prepare for what you fear will be the calculated indifference of your rulers, who are preparing their next campaigns, with battles that could lead to your own demise?
“‘The Enemy,'” Joseph Heller’s character Yossarian said in his World War II novel “Catch-22,” “is whoever is going to get you killed, whoever side they are on.”
On Monday morning, Ukrainian officials were talking about controlling the “outskirts” of Bakhmut and preparing for flanking operations, a subtle indication that the battle in the city was over. Amid the rubble, the pre-war population of around 70,000 dwindled to a few thousand or less.
The Russian capture of Bakhmut at some point seemed unlikely. The Ukrainian army had repelled the Russians from the vicinity of Kharkiv last September. In November, the port city of Kherson is liberated. Ukraine won. Some in Bakhmut hoped kyiv’s troops would keep advancing, reversing the tide once and for all.
But despite their defeats elsewhere, troops from Moscow as well as the mercenary forces of Wagner, the Kremlin-backed group leading the assault on Bakhmut, never stopped attacking the city.
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin had made it clear that his forces would capture Bakhmut and then target the entire mineral-rich Donbass region in which it resides. There was no winter lull as the ground hardened and the metal breaches from howitzers and Kalashnikovs became painful to touch with fingers numb from the cold. Spring has just brought more destruction in fierce and bloody street-to-street fighting.
Military analysts, Western officials and the media have debated Bakhmut’s “strategic significance” for months, as if military-style jargon could make it easier to deal with the loss of an entire city to a invading army. The Russians could make better use of their resources, analysts say. Ukraine should withdraw to better ground and continue its offensive elsewhere, they added.
I remember the pundits and the press in 2010 when I fought in a different battle as a Marine infantryman in southern Afghanistan – the Battle of Marja. It was nowhere near as violent as what I witnessed on my many trips to Bakhmut as a reporter for the New York Times, but like Ukrainian soldiers fighting for their city, I knew the everyone was watching.
How little that meant in 2010, when no public scrutiny would determine whether my friends lived or died. And how little it meant to the soldiers fighting in Bakhmut, where every minute not bombed or attacked was a welcome reprieve, and where the goal of each day was to survive and stay alive.
Mr Zelensky made Bakhmut the official focal point of the war when he visited in December, appearing alongside his war-weary soldiers in what looked like a vacant factory near the front. The speed bump of a city, formerly called Artemivsk, was in the spotlight.
Bakhmut, with its once well-maintained footpaths and picturesque, well-known vineyard, has suddenly taken on strategic importance, whether generals and analysts agree or not.
Mr. Zelensky’s visit was all the media and the people of Ukraine needed. “Bakhmut Holds” has become a rallying cry. The war had another climactic battle, one that looked suspiciously like the siege of Mariupol and the fighting at Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk months before: outnumbered defenders, fighting a much larger army.
We are “surrounded by fire”, said a soldier fighting in Bakhmut towards the end of the battle, before asking if the Times would provide the appropriate information to the public if he was left there.
Opposite Mr. Zelensky was Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, the head of Wagner. The once-secret tycoon has started appearing in videos on the Bakhmut front. In the footage, Mr Prigozhin is seen rallying his fighters and pushing Mr Zelensky as he adjusts his bulletproof vest. In a video posted in March, Mr Prigozhin asked Ukraine’s president to keep sending “combat-ready units” so that his Wagnerian troops could kill them.
He also fought with Russian military leaders, lambasting and mocking them, adding a larger-than-life character to Bakhmut’s narrative.
It was a camera-ready match heightened by the gruesome images also coming from the front.
Videos posted from the battlefield showed a shell-scarred landscape dotted with broken trees. The soldiers fought in muddy trenches in knee-deep water. Trench foot was rampant during the winter.
Bakhmut was soon compared to Verdun in 1916 (a 10-month battle that claimed hundreds of thousands of French and German casualties). But bloody trench warfare in eastern Ukraine was nothing new, having been a staple of the conflict since Russian-backed separatists began fighting the government there in 2014.
And historical comparisons, as relevant as they may have been, have done nothing to alleviate the horrors on the ground. For months, Ukrainian dead and wounded have poured into Bakhmut’s only hospital. Bloodstained stretchers welcomed new patients. The Russian dead littered the surrounding fields, camouflaged corpses pointing in the direction of their attack.
Mr. Zelensky’s visit had been clear: his forces would fight to the end. Bakhmut would join the list of cities where many soldiers died in exchange for only a few kilometers of ravaged land.
Those soldiers who live will have the rest of their lives to wonder if it was worth it. And those who died will be remembered as the fallen heroes of the Battle of Bakhmut, the ranks that ended in a city many people had never heard of a year ago.
As I stood by the shattered window that freezing December night, I remember thinking that despite the crescendo of artillery and the sound of gunfire, the battle for Bakhmut seemed far away. Two days later, a shell crashed into the empty apartment we were in.
Now the Russians are patrolling the city. The war continues. It will gradually move to new places on the map, not yet destroyed by months-long artillery battles, where new slogans may emerge and where “strategic significance” remains in question, as the world waits for another finale. bloody.