Why did Ukraine fight Russia for every inch of Bakhmut?

KIEV, Ukraine –

The nine-month battle for Bakhmut has destroyed the 400-year-old city in eastern Ukraine and killed tens of thousands of people in a mutually devastating display of Ukraine’s strategy to wear down the Russian military.

The fog of war made it impossible to establish the situation on the ground in the longest battle of the invasion on Sunday. The Russian Defense Ministry said that Wagner’s private army, backed by Russian troops, had captured the city. Meanwhile, President Vladimir Zelensky said that Bakhmut is not fully occupied by Russian forces.

Regardless, the small town has long been more symbolic than strategic for both sides. The most significant measure of success for Ukrainian forces is their ability to keep the Russians at bay. The Ukrainian military has aimed to drain the resources and morale of Russian troops along a small but tactical stretch of the 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) frontline as Ukraine prepares for a major counteroffensive in the 15-month war.

“Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said the colonel-general. Alexander Sirsky, 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 it will definitely happen.

About 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital Donetsk, Bakhmut 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 famous for its sparkling wine produced in underground caves. It was popular with tourists for its wide tree-lined boulevards, lush gardens and magnificent center with impressive late 19th century mansions. All now reduced to a smoldering wasteland.

It is the city center that has seen so much fierce fighting by Russia and Ukraine in recent months, with Ukrainian commanders admitting that Moscow controls more than 90%. But even now, Ukrainian forces are making significant advances near strategic roads through the countryside just outside, cutting off Russia’s northern and southern flanks by meters (yards) with the goal of encircling Wagner fighters inside the city.

“The opponent could not 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 Deputy Minister of Defense of Ukraine Hanna Maliar. “Our troops captured the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy.”

Ukrainian military leaders say their months-long resistance was worth it because it limited Russia’s options elsewhere and allowed Ukrainian advances.

“The main idea is to exhaust them and then attack,” Ukrainian colonel. Yevhen Mezhevikin, commander of the specialized group fighting in Bakhmut, said on Thursday.

According to Ukrainian officials and other outside observers, Russia has deployed forces in Bakhmut to fill the lost northern and southern flanks and prevent further Ukrainian breakthroughs. Russian President Vladimir Putin desperately needs to win the city of Bakhmut, where Russian forces have concentrated their efforts, analysts say, especially after his forces’ winter offensive failed to capture other towns and cities on the front.

Some analysts say even Ukraine’s tactical gains in the countryside outside of urban Bakhmut may be more significant than meets the eye.

“It looks like the Ukrainians just took advantage of the fact that the Russian lines were actually weak,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St. Petersburg University. Andrews: “The Russian army suffered so many losses and was so worn out around Bakhmut that… it can no longer advance.”

Ukrainian forces have been carrying out relentless artillery attacks on the outskirts of Bakhmut and the city until a month ago. Then, Ukrainian forces south of the city saw their chance for a breakthrough after reconnaissance drones indicated that the southern Russian flank had moved into a defensive position. Mezhevikin said:

After weeks of fierce fighting, Ukrainian units made their first advance near Bakhmut since the invasion nine months ago.

In total, nearly 20 square kilometers (eight square miles) of territory have been retaken, Maliar said in an interview last week. According to the spokesman of the “East” command of the Operational Command of Ukraine, Serkhy Cherevaty, since then, hundreds of meters have been restored almost every day.

“Before, we only held the lines and did not allow the Russians to move further into our territory. What happened now is our first advance (after the start of the war),” Maliar said.

The victory in Bakhmut does not necessarily bring Russia closer to capturing the Donetsk region. The purpose of the war declared by Putin. Rather, it opens the door to more massive fighting in the direction of Sloviansk or Konstantinivka, 20 kilometers away, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the US-based Institute for the Study of War think tank.

Satellite images released this week show infrastructure, apartment buildings and iconic buildings reduced to rubble.

In the last week, days before Russia announced that the city was under their control, Ukrainian forces held only a few buildings in the face of constant Russian bombardment. Outnumbered and outnumbered, they described nightmare days.

The dominance of Russian artillery is so overwhelming, accompanied by continuous human waves of mercenaries, that it was not possible to hold defensive positions for long.

“The importance of our mission to stay in Bakhmut is to distract the enemy’s significant forces,” said Taras Dejak, commander of the volunteer battalion’s special unit. “We pay dearly for it.”

The northern and southern flanks restored by Ukraine are located near two highways leading to Chasiv Yar, 10 kilometers (6 mi) from the city of Bakhmut, which serves as a major logistical supply route, one called the “road of life.”

Ukrainian forces crossing this route often came under fire from Russians stationed along the nearby strategic heights. Armored vehicles and pickup trucks going to the city to resupply Ukrainian troops were often destroyed.

With the highlands now under Ukrainian control, his forces have more breathing room.

“This will help us design new logistics chains to deliver munitions and evacuate guys who are wounded or killed,” Dejak said Thursday, speaking from inside the city, two days before Russia announced it was in control of the city. “Now it’s easier to deliver supplies, rotate troops, (carry out) evacuations.”


Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.

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