Battle for Bakhmut
A ragtag group of Russian forces and members of the Wagner private mercenary firm have been launching waves of infantry against Bakhmut since August in an effort to topple Ukraine’s defiant siege of the small city in the eastern Donetsk area.
In recent months, Ukraine’s counteroffensives in the Kharkiv region to the north and in the Kherson area, on the west bank of the Dnieper River, to the southwest, have overshadowed that combat. Commanders on both sides have referred to the severely mined terrain of the war for Bakhmut as a “meat grinder”.
By December, the assault grew more intense, with Russian forces encircling Bakhmut on three sides, leaving only one significant path open to the besieged forces of Ukraine.
Is Bakhmut Strategically Important?
Just 20 kilometers west of the administrative border with the Luhansk region, the city is located on the Bakhmutka River. Geographically, it is situated at the intersection of numerous important routes and is flanked by somewhat higher elevations on rather open flatland. Due to the elevation difference and crossroads, it is more vulnerable to mortar and rocket fire and is crucial for moving soldiers and supplies to nearby positions.
There were around 70,000 individuals residing there before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but, Iryna Vereshchuk, the deputy prime minister of Ukraine, stated in March that there left less than 4,000 civilians, including 38 children.
Bakhmut is most known for its sizable winery, salt, and gypsum mines. Bakhmut’s symbolic significance greatly transcends its strategic significance for military specialists and close observers of the Ukrainian battlefields.
Bakhmut’s Significance for Kyiv
Bakhmut has become an embodiment of the valiant struggle for Ukraine. The president of Ukraine, Volodymir Zelenskyy, has depicted “Fortress Bakhmut” as a sign of resistance that is draining the Russian military.
Kyiv notes that severe losses in manpower and equipment have been inflicted on Russian forces as a result of protracted fighting around the city that has trapped down numerous Russian troops and prevented Moscow from undertaking offensive operations elsewhere. Even though it might not have much of an impact strategically, as its friends claim, the loss of Bakhmut for Ukraine could be demoralizing.
Bakhmut’s Significance for Moscow
Capturing Bakhmut offers Russia the potential to declare victory and make up for last year’s military defeats. It would be a triumph on the battlefield that would revive Russia’s spirits.
Also, Bakhmut is a regional transportation and logistics hub, thus the Russian military finds it valuable and has pushed poorly trained recruits and former prisoners to the front lines into the path of Ukrainian shelling and machine guns.
After just five months of the Russia-Ukraine war, more than 20,000 Russian soldiers have died and more than 80,000 have been injured, according to US officials. Moscow is desperate for significant military success and believes that Bakhmut is the key to capturing the entire eastern Donbas territory.
Furthermore, the ability to seize Bakhmut would allow Moscow’s forces to obstruct Ukrainian supply routes and provide a path to the cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, which have developed into crucial strongholds for Ukraine.
What Happens if Bakhmut Falls?
After suffering many losses, the Russians started to gain territory in and around. Zelenskyy stated that his order to hold Bakhmut was a tactical choice because he feared that they would have “an open road” to the two cities if Russian forces captured it.
Capturing Bakhmut would give Russia a stepping stone to take control of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, two larger cities in the Donetsk region. Both would be easily accessible to Soviet artillery. Given how long the conflict has lasted there—Russian forces have been bombarding the city since May and have begun a ground assault in August—Western diplomats are doubtful that Russian forces could quickly benefit from Bakhmut’s conquest.
Russia lost territory during its haphazard withdrawal from northeastern Ukraine last year, which would have made it simpler for its soldiers to conquer cities like Sloviansk after taking control of Bakhmut. Also, Moscow has to maintain control over both to complete what it refers to as the “liberation” of the “Donetsk People’s Republic”.
Yevgeny Prigozhin and Wagner Group’s Stake
Much of Moscow’s offensives in and around the city are manned by mercenaries from the Wagner Group as well as thousands of newly mobilized Russian troops and conscripted convicts who were forcibly inducted into the battle lines to fight alongside the Wagner forces.
The Wagner Group is run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is engaged in combat with the Ukrainians along with Putin. Yevgeny Prigozhin’s prestige and the reputation of his private army are at stake if Bakhmut is not taken. Prigozhin wanted to prove that his soldiers could outperform the Russian army at large.
The Russian government, however, claims that the organization is not legitimately recognized in Russia and denies any association with it
Hanna Maliar, the deputy minister of defense for Ukraine, stated that Ukrainian forces have gained ground surrounding the city in a statement on Telegram on May 12, 2023. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the CEO of the Wagner Group, reportedly threatened to withdraw his mercenary army from the area. He declared in a furious video that he would order his forces to leave the settlement since they were out of support and supplies from the regular Russian army.
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