“Exhaust them”: Why Ukraine fought Russia for every inch of Bahmut, despite the high costs
KYIV, Ukraine — The nine-month battle for Bahmut has destroyed the 400-year-old city in eastern Ukraine and killed tens of thousands of people in a demonstration of mutual destruction in Ukraine’s strategy to wear down the Russian military.
The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground Sunday in the longest battle of the invasion: the Russian Defense Ministry reported that Wagner’s private army, backed by Russian troops, had captured the city. President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, said that Bakhmut was not fully occupied by Russian forces.
Regardless, the small town has long had more symbolic than strategic value for both sides. A more meaningful measure of the success of the Ukrainian forces was their ability to engage the Russians. The Ukrainian military’s goal was to deplete the resources and morale of Russian troops along a small but tactical stretch of the 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) front as Ukraine prepares for a major counteroffensive in the 15-month-old war.
“Despite the fact that we currently control a small part of Bahmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said Colonel General. Oleksandr Syrsky, Commander of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. “This gives us the opportunity to enter the city if the situation changes. And that will definitely happen.”
About 55 kilometers (34 mi) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, Bahmut was an important industrial center surrounded by salt and gypsum mines and home to about 80,000 people in a country of more than 43 million before the war.
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 boulevards, lush parks, and imposing downtown with imposing mansions from the late 19th century. Now all of them have turned into a smoldering wasteland.
Russia and Ukraine have been fighting for the city center itself in recent months, with Ukrainian commanders admitting that Moscow controls more than 90% of it. But even now, Ukrainian forces are making significant advances near strategic roads through the countryside, cutting off Russia’s northern and southern flanks by yards (yards) in an effort to encircle the Wagner fighters inside the city.
“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut. They lost some 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, Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine. – Our troops have half surrounded the city, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy.
Ukrainian military leaders say their months of resistance have been worth it because it has limited Russia’s capabilities elsewhere and allowed Ukraine to advance.
“The main idea is to exhaust them and then attack,” Ukrainian Colonel Yevhen Mezhevikin, commander of the special group fighting in Bahmut, said on Thursday.
Ukrainian officials and other outside observers say Russia has sent reinforcements to Bahmut to replace the lost northern and southern flanks and prevent further Ukrainian breakthroughs. Analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin desperately needs a victory in the city of Bahmut, where Russian forces have concentrated their efforts, especially after his troops’ winter offensive failed to capture other towns on the frontline.
Even Ukraine’s tactical advantage in rural areas outside of urban Bahmut may be more significant than meets the eye, some analysts say.
“It was almost as if the Ukrainians were just taking advantage of the fact that the Russian lines were actually weak,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews. “The Russian army has suffered such great losses and is so worn out around Bahmut that… it can no longer advance.”
Ukrainian forces carried out relentless artillery attacks on the outskirts of Bahmut and the city until a month ago. Then Ukrainian forces south of the city spotted a chance for a breakthrough after reconnaissance drones showed that the southern Russian flank had gone on the defensive, Col. Mezhevikin said.
After weeks of heavy fighting, Ukrainian units advanced for the first time around Bahmut since the occupation nine months ago.
In total, an area of nearly 20 square kilometers was reclaimed, Maliar said in an interview last week. According to Szerhij Cherevatyi, the spokesperson of Ukraine’s Eastern Command, hundreds of meters (yards) have been recovered almost every day since then.
“Before, we just held the lines and did not allow the Russians to push further into our territory. What happened now is our first advance (since the start of the battle),” Maliar said.
A victory in Bakhmut does not necessarily bring Russia closer to capturing the Donetsk region – Putin’s stated war goal. Rather, it opens the door to further grinding battles in the direction of Sloviansk or Kostiantynivka, 20 kilometers away, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank.
Satellite images released this week showed infrastructure, blocks of flats and iconic buildings reduced to rubble.
In the past week, days before Russia announced that the city was under their control, Ukrainian forces held only a few buildings amid constant Russian bombardment. Outnumbered and unarmed, they described nightmarish days.
Russia’s artillery dominance was so overwhelming, accompanied by continuous waves of human mercenaries, that defensive positions could not be held for long.
“The importance of the mission to stay in Bakhmut is to distract a significant 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, which Ukraine has recaptured, are located near two highways leading to the town of Chasiv Yar, 10 kilometers from Bakhmut, which serves as a key logistics supply route, one called the “road of life”.
Ukrainian forces passing this way were often fired upon by Russians positioned along strategic heights nearby. Armored vehicles and vans heading towards the city were often destroyed to replenish Ukrainian troops.
With the high plains now under Ukrainian control, its forces have more breathing room.
“This will help us design new logistics chains to bring in ammunition and evacuate boys who are injured or killed,” Deiak said Thursday, speaking from inside the city, two days before Russia claimed control of the city. “Now it’s easier to transport supplies, change teams, and carry out evacuations.”
Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.