The Ukrainian city has resisted heavy Russian attacks since the summer, but Wagner’s mercenaries appear to have gained ground around Bakhmut against Kiev’s forces.
At the heart of the fiercest Russian offensive in Ukraine is the city of Bakhmut, a battle Moscow appeared to be determined to win at any cost.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has described the Russian attack around Bakhmut as “madness”, referring to the nearby salt mining town of Soledar, which he said, “is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes”.
Backed by Wagner mercenaries – and reinforced by freed prison inmates – Russia has shown an evident willingness to take heavy losses to capture Bakhmut, located between the pro-Moscow separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Most of Soledar, a strategic town north of Bakhmut, and Bakhmutske, a critical nearby village, appeared to have been captured by Wagner forces, though Ukraine has refuted the mercenary group’s claims of capturing Soledar and said intense fighting continues to rage.
Russian capture of Bakhmut is “possible” while it’s “definitely not likely in the nearest perspective,” says Illia Ponomarenko, a defence and security reporter at the Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian newspaper.
“Russia has been trying to get Bakhmut since at least August, to very limited results. So far, the situation has been complicated for Ukrainian forces, but the city’s geographic position and strong Ukrainian defences are holding on,” Ponomarenko tells TRT World.
Eugene Chausovsky, a defence expert and a senior analyst at New Lines Institute, also thinks that “Russia may have the military capability to capture Bakhmut eventually”, but “it will take a gruelling fight and come at a significant cost for Russian forces.”
“Russia can probably capture the city if Vladimir Putin demands it,” says Edward Erickson, a former American military officer and a retired Professor of Military History from the Department of War Studies at the Marine Corps University.
“They appear to be trying to encircle the city at this time. Offensive operations are always more costly than defensive operations - so Putin will have to decide if the costs are worth the effort. I don’t think Russia’s objective is geographical. Bakhmut itself has no (strategic) value,” Erickson tells TRT World.
‘A test of wills’
While Bakhmut does not have significant strategic importance, the battle has a strong psychological value for Ukraine, becoming a symbol of resistance against the Russian offensive. For Moscow, it is also equally crucial because President Vladimir Putin needs a clear victory to show the Russian public that things are not going so badly, according to Ponomarenko.
“Bakhmut is mostly a political goal for Russia - it’s being done mostly for the sake of propaganda reasons to show everybody that after so many months and utter failures in Kherson and Kharkiv, it still can capture a more or less significant city,” says the Ukrainian analyst.
Erickson also thinks that the city has enormous psychological value to both sides. “Like Stalingrad, the Hurtgen Forest, or Verdun, the battle for Bakhmut has become a test of wills,” says the military analyst, referring to three critical battlefields during the two world wars where one side was under prolonged siege.
Stalingrad, a city in southwestern Russia renamed Volgograd, was the location of the deadliest battle in WWII between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Red Army. The defending Soviet forces were able to repulse the Germans despite heavy losses. The battle of Stalingrad is widely seen as the turning point in the European front of WWII.
The Hurtgen Forest refers to another critical WWII battle between US forces and Germany in late 1944. The superior number of American forces, which fought their most extended battle ever in US history, could not overcome fierce German defence lines, leading to severe losses and retreat for the allied forces.
France’s Verdun was also the scene of one of the most protracted battles between the defending French and attacking German armies in WWI, costing both sides hugely.
“Neither side (in Bakhmut) seems ready to quit and the objective now is for the prestige that victory will bring. The physical city is not worth fighting for - but victory brings prestige and credibility,” says Erickson, author of several books on military history.
Can Bakhmut affect the war?
Russian capture of Bakhmut “would be, of course, a bad thing, but not a disaster” for Ukraine, says Ponomarenko. He also feels that continuing to defend Bakhmut against Wagner’s forces might not be a good idea for Kiev, and it can avoid a “death trap” if it can withdraw its troops “before it’s too late”.
Chausovsky believes that capturing Bakhmut might not award Russia a grand prize in its overall war effort. “Moscow has had to mobilise greater numbers than it originally planned - including prisoners and poorly-trained recruits lacking experience, and it has faced difficulties achieving its military objectives, even in the Ukrainian territories it has annexed,” he tells TRT World.
Under Wagner’s pressure, Putin has released at least 35,000 prisoners, one-tenth of the whole Russian prisoner population, to deploy them on the frontlines.
“Whether or not Russia eventually captures Bakhmut, its efforts to take all of Donbass and southern Ukraine are unlikely to be met anytime soon, just as Ukraine can be expected to regain certain territories in its counter-offensives,” says Chausovsky.
Erickson has similar thoughts. “Possession of Bakhmut does not affect the battlefield situation. After the battle, it will look like the French city of Caen in Normandy - an empty shell of rubble,” he says.
“But a Russian victory would go a long way toward Putin being able to tell the Russian people that their army’s well-known problems are fixed and the war can be won,” he adds.
However, failing to capture Bakhmut might create more grave consequences for Moscow, where the criticism of Russia’s military leadership would be emboldened “for its inability to effectively gain any progress against Ukraine,” says Ponomarenko.
Unlike other battlefields across Ukraine, Kiev has uncharacteristically decided to fight pitched battles in Bakhmut, deploying more than 10 brigades which equal roughly 30,000 troops, according to military sources.
“Whenever Ukraine’s forces fight Russian style, as ‘little Soviets’, it does not play to their strengths,” a senior western military official told the Financial Times, referring to Kiev’s Bakhmut fighting.
This changing tactic might hurt Ukraine more than Russia. But, like Ukraine, Russia is also using a different tactic in Bakhmut compared to other Ukrainian-occupied territories, leaving it almost entirely to Wagner to finish the job.
Prigozhin says that the potential capture of Bakhmut by the Wagner group would reinforce his argument that Russia’s “corrupt” military leadership, which he believes is the main reason for Ukraine's reverses, is not fit to lead the war effort.
Prigozhin’s fierce criticism of some Russian generals in charge of the Ukraine war has resulted in the reassignment of Alexander Lapin, a target of the Wagner boss, who was the commander of the Central Military District, to a kind of retirement post in the army. There have long been tensions between Wagner and the defence ministry.
Also, the Russian army chief Valery Gerasimov became the overall field commander of the Ukraine war, replacing Sergei Surovikin, thanks to a defence ministry reshuffling. He will be the fourth military appointee to oversee the Ukraine war since the beginning of the Russian offensive.