For the past five months, the fighting around one small city in eastern Ukraine has resembled scenes from World War I: a place where soldiers are fighting from old-style trenches, where waves of soldiers make often-fatal charges over open land — and where gains are counted in tiny patches of territory.
The small city is Bakhmut. And as the overall war grinds on, Bakhmut isn’t just a particularly violent battleground. It’s also the most important contest of the war.
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Madness or not, a victory in Soledar, prewar population of about 10,000, would mark some of the first progress the Russian war effort has demonstrated in months. The capture of Bakhmut would be an even more significant propaganda victory and likely also a boost to the political standing of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Kremlin insider whose Wagner Group, a shadowy private military contractor, has been doing the bulk of the fighting there, often publicly clashing with Russia’s regular military in the process.
For Ukraine, the battle has become a symbolic and politically significant struggle, evidence of the country’s willingness to make enormous sacrifices to defend its territory. As Major Oleksii Zakharchenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Territorial Defense Forces, told Grid, “Our army forces will fight for any Ukrainian city, no matter if it is bigger or smaller than Bakhmut. What is Ukrainian, will stay Ukrainian.”
In strategic terms, however, analysts and officials on both sides concede that Bakhmut is of limited strategic value. If it falls, it probably won’t dramatically improve Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chances of achieving his war aims. And holding Bakhmut wouldn’t be a game-changer for Ukraine. All of which raises the question of why so many human lives are being spent fighting over this one small city.
Blood and salt
Ukrainian casualties have been high as well. In November, the New York Times reported on one Ukrainian military hospital — the only one in the region — that had treated 240 injured troops in a single day. According to Britain’s ministry of defense, Ukraine has committed “significant reinforcements” to Bakhmut in the past two weeks after suffering high casualties.
What is it all for?
Maksym Zhorin, former commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, told Grid that he believes Russia’s “military goal is to create conditions for further advancement. They still expect to reach the borders of the Donetsk region. But if the battle for Bakhmut began with such goals, over time it became just a dull meat grinder, in which as many people as possible should die on both sides.”
Bakhmut lies on a strategically important highway and near some important rail links, and taking the city could set up Russian forces for assaults on larger nearby towns in Donetsk like Slovyansk and Kramatorsk.
“It’s got some significance, but there are about 20 towns of that size that the Russians would need to take to control the Donbas,” Jeffrey Edmonds, a former Russia director for the White House National Security Council now at the Center for Naval Analyses, told Grid. “It’s not some magical point.”
For the Russians, the terrible grind in Bakhmut may be partly motivated by a sunk-cost fallacy: Having poured so much into the battle already, losing is not an option; they need something to show for it. It’s also politically vital for the Kremlin to show some success after the setbacks in Kherson and Kharkiv. And it’s particularly vital for the man who’s taken on Bakhmut as his personal project.
Chef on the hot seat
The road ahead
If Soledar is actually taken by Russia — and again, this is still a matter of dispute — it will be a significant turning point in the battle, but not necessarily a decisive one. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, assessed on Thursday that taking Soledear “will not enable Russian forces to exert control over critical Ukrainian ground lines of communication into Bakhmut nor better position Russian forces to encircle the city in the short term.”
The ISW has predicted that the Russian effort in Bakhmut may soon reach this “culmination,” meaning an inability to continue major combat operations. But smaller-scale attacks on the city may continue. As with much else in the war, it could come down to which size can maintain its stocks of ammunition the longest. The loss of life, sadly, may be less of an issue.
As CNA’s Edmonds told Grid, “If it’s a game of just throwing people at the Ukrainians, I think the Russians are prepared to do that for quite some time.”
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