Ukraine war: Why Bakhmut matters for Russia and Ukraine

Ukraine war: Why Bakhmut matters for Russia and Ukraine

By James Landale Diplomatic Correspondent in Kiev

21 minutes ago

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Russia has virtually destroyed Bakhmut in its efforts to capture the city

For more than seven long months, this small industrial town in eastern Ukraine has been hammered by Russian forces.

According to its deputy leader, Oleksandr Marchenko, there are only a few thousand civilians left who live in underground shelters without water, gas or electricity. “The city is almost destroyed,” he told the BBC. “There is no building that has remained untouched in this war.”

So why are Russia and Ukraine fighting so hard over this pile of rubble? Why are both sides giving the lives of so many soldiers to attack and defend this city in a battle that has lasted longer than any other in this war?

Military analysts say Bakhmut has little strategic value. It is not a garrison town or a transportation center or a major population center. Before the invasion, about 70,000 people lived there. The town was best known for its salt and gypsum mines and great wine. It has no special geographical significance. As one Western official put it, Bakhmut is “a small tactical event on a 1,200-kilometer front line.”

And yet Russia is deploying huge military resources to take the city. Western officials estimate between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded so far in and around Bakhmut.

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Ukraine has suffered many casualties – such as the burial of this soldier in Lviv – in defense of Bakhmut.

The Kremlin needs a victory, however symbolic. It’s been a long time since the summer when Russian forces occupied cities like Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. Since then, the territorial gains they have made have been incremental and slow.

So Russia needs a hit to sell to pro-Kremlin propagandists at home. Serhii Kuzan, head of Ukraine’s Center for Security and Cooperation, told the BBC: “They are fighting a political mission, not just a military one. The Russians will continue to sacrifice thousands of lives to achieve their political goals.”

Russian commanders also want to take Bakhmut for military reasons. They hope this can give them a springboard for further territorial gains. As the UK Ministry of Defense noted in December, capturing the city “would potentially allow Russia to threaten the larger urban areas of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk”.

And then it comes to the Wagner mercenary group that is at the center of the attack.

Its leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has risked his reputation and that of his private army to capture Bakhmut. He hoped to show that his fighters could do better than the regular Russian army. He has recruited thousands of convicts and is pouring waves of them into the Ukrainian defenses, many to their deaths.

If he cannot succeed here, then his political influence in Moscow will diminish. Mr Prigozhin is at odds with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, criticizing his tactics and now complaining of a lack of sufficient ammunition. Yes, said Mr. Kuzan, a political struggle between the two men for influence in the Kremlin “and the place for this struggle is in Bakhmut and its surroundings.”

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Few civilians remain in Bakhmut, which was once home to about 70,000 people

So why has Ukraine defended Bakhmut so tenaciously, losing thousands of troops in the process?

The main strategic goal is to use the battle to weaken the Russian army. One Western official put it bluntly: “Bakhmut, because of Russian tactics, is giving Ukraine a unique opportunity to kill a lot of Russians.”

These figures are impossible to verify. Serhii Kuzan told the BBC: “As long as Bakhmut fulfills its function, allowing us to crush the enemy’s forces, to destroy far more of them proportionately than the enemy inflicts losses on us, then we will certainly continue to hold Bakhmut.” By defending the city, Ukraine also ties up Russian forces that may be deployed elsewhere on the front line.

Like Russia, Ukraine has given Bakhmut political importance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made the city an emblem of resistance. When he visited Washington in December, he called it “the citadel of our morality” and presented a Bakhmut flag to the US Congress. “The fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our struggle for independence and freedom,” he said.

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The battle for Bakhmut has been going on for months

What if Bakhmut falls? Russia would claim a victory, rare good news to boost morale. Ukraine would suffer a political, symbolic defeat. Ukrainians would no longer be able to shout “Bakhmut holds!” on social media. But few believe it would have a major military impact. US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said: “The fall of Bakhmut does not necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the course of this war.”

Mick Ryan, a strategist and former Australian general, believes that there would be no rapid Russian advance: “The Ukrainians… will retreat to defensive zones in the Kramatorsk areas that they have had eight years to prepare. And the city it stands higher, more defensible ground than Bakhmut. Any advance in the Kramatorsk region is likely to be as bloody for the Russians as his campaign for Bakhmut.”

So perhaps what matters most in the battle for Bakhmut is how many losses each side has suffered and what that might mean for the next phase of this war. Will Russia have suffered so many casualties that its capacity to carry out further attacks has been weakened? Or will Ukraine have lost so many soldiers that its military will be less able to launch a counteroffensive later in the spring?

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