Ukraine vows to defend ‘fortress’ Bakhmut as Russian troops surround it: here are 3 reasons why


Ukrainian infantrymen of the 28th Brigade view damaged buildings as they drive toward a front line facing Russian forces outside Bakhmut, Ukraine on March 5, 2023.

Jan Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images

After seven months of fighting over the industrial city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk, it is not surprising that neither Ukraine nor Russia want to capitulate to its defense – or conquest.

But now it seems increasingly likely that the sheer weight of manpower expended on brutal fighting there, particularly by Moscow’s mercenaries in the Wagner Group, could give Russia the upper hand.

On Wednesday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian mercenaries fighting in Bakhmut (a city Russia calls “Artemovsk”) said Wagner had taken full control of the eastern part, according to comments published by Russia’s state news outlet Tass.

Despite its troops appearing vulnerable to encirclement, Ukraine on Monday vowed to keep defending the city and sending reinforcements, defying expectations that a tactical withdrawal was imminent.

Both Russia and Ukraine have deployed masses of personnel in their efforts to capture and defend Bakhmut respectively, with both claiming to have inflicted hundreds of casualties on each other’s forces on a daily basis.

Aside from making up for these sacrifices with some kind of victory at Bakhmut, there are several other reasons why both sides have a reason to fight to the bitter end, ranging from symbolic to militarily expedient.

Symbolic value

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the decision to defend Bakhmut showed that nowhere in Ukraine would be “abandoned”, an important psychological and symbolic message to Ukrainian fighters that their defense of their country matters after a year of fighting.

Still, the benefits of fighting on in Bakhmut — a city of about 70,000 and known for its pre-war salt mining industry — have been questioned, with military analysts and officials noting that even if Bakhmut falls into Russian hands, it won the course of the war. war does not change dramatically.

An aerial view of the destruction in Bakhmut on February 27, 2023. Russian troops appear to be tightening the noose around the city in Donetsk.

– | Afp | Getty Images

“I think it’s more of a symbolic value than a strategic and operational one,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Monday when asked about the significance of the battle for Bakhmut.

“The fall of Bakhmut does not necessarily mean that the Russians have turned the tide of this battle,” he added, noting that he would not predict when Bakhmut would fall to Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials say the city is now largely in ruins, reducing the value it could have to Russia, while to Kiev it is part of Ukraine. “I think it’s more about the symbolic value than the actual strategic value,” Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense ministry, told CNBC.

“It’s not a big city … now it’s ruins, it’s pulverized. There are a few thousand people living in underground shelters, but it’s an abandoned city, there’s only constant artillery and street-to-street fighting. Strategically, I think that for both sides it’s more of a symbol now, that’s why we call it Bakhmut’s ‘fortress’,” Sak said.

The private military company Wagner has a point to prove in Bakhmut as it seeks to boost its credibility within the Kremlin and Russian Defense Ministry (with whom Prigozhin has had a very public spat) and in the Russian public and military blogosphere.

Michael Clarke, former director-general of UK defense and security think-tank RUSI, on Tuesday agreed that “there is no huge strategic value in Bakhmut,” but noted that both Russia and Ukraine have special symbolic significance to the city. promised.

“For seven months now, the Wagner Group … has been targeting Bakhmut to show they can gain ground while the rest of the Russian army has been losing ground. So it’s become a huge symbolic issue,” Clarke told the BBC- radio. , adding that he did not believe Bakhmut’s fall was inevitable, but said it was “most likely”.

“The Ukrainians are now in a situation where they have to decide whether to live with the symbolic problem of giving it up or lose more troops to defend it.”

A Ukrainian assault brigade soldier walks along a muddy road used to transport and position British-made L118 105mm howitzers, near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on March 4, 2023.

Jan Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Whether Ukraine will be able to continue to supply its troops in Bakhmut is a critical issue. On Tuesday, the British Ministry of Defense noted that a Russian attack destroyed a bridge over the only paved approach road to Bakhmut still under Ukrainian control. unpaved roads.”

Clarke said southwestern Bakhmut Ukraine currently still offers a way in and out of Bakhmut, but once that route is cut off “they will have to get out”.

Strategic value

Russia has made no bones about seeing the capture of Bakhmut as a way to cut off Ukrainian supply routes in the wider Donetsk region, which is a major military target for Russia. Bakhmut serves as a transportation hub for Ukraine supplying its troops in the region, although Ukrainian officials have attempted to play down the impact of an eventual fall of Bakhmut on the war effort.

Ukrainian military vehicles drive along a road outside the strategic city of Bakhmut on January 18, 2023 in Bakhmut, Ukraine. Russia has stepped up its offensive in the Donetsk region in the new year, with the Kiev-appointed governor of the region accusing Russia of using scorched-earth tactics.

Spencer Plat | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Nevertheless, Ukraine is concerned that Russia will use the city as a springboard to advance on other cities in eastern Ukraine and thus consolidate their military occupation of the region.

On Tuesday, Zelenskyy warned that Russian troops will have “open roads” to key cities in eastern Ukraine if they take Bakhmut.

“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky told CNN, insisting that Kiev’s military army is united in continuing the defense of the city. “We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be a public road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other cities in Ukraine, towards Donetsk. That’s why our boys are standing there.”

Ukraine’s fears that capturing Bakhmut would allow the Russians to advance further are not widely shared. Analysts say Russia exhausted so much manpower during the battle for Bakhmut that it could spend them.

Experts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank note that Bakhmut is not “intrinsically significant operationally or strategically,” but note that taking Bakhmut for Russia is “necessary but not sufficient for further Russian advances” in the Donetsk region .

“Russian forces have already suffered such heavy losses while fighting for the city that their attack will very likely culminate after they secure the city – or before. The loss of Bakhmut is therefore not of great operational or strategic importance to Ukraine, as secretary Austin and others have observed,” it said in an analysis Monday.

Curbing the momentum of mercenaries

Ukraine says there is another reason to continue fighting in Bakhmut if Russia’s best combat units are deployed.

The defense ministry said on Monday that the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, had again visited the units defending Bakhmut and noted that “the enemy had thrown Wagner’s additional troops into battle” and that “the Ukrainian troops” inflicted significant losses”. on the enemy, destroyed a large amount of equipment, forced Wagner’s best strike units into battle and reduced the enemy’s attack potential.

Defense analysts note that Wagner’s founder Priogozhin himself now seems wary that the Battle of Bakhmut, ISW analysts said, “could seriously degrade the Wagner Group’s best troops, leaving Russia with some of its most effective and most difficult to replace shock troops.” be taken away.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close ally of Vladimir Putin, is the head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner and a range of other companies.

Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin apparently fears that his forces will be deployed in exactly this way. Prigozhin made a number of statements on March 5 and 6 suggesting he fears that the Russian Defense Ministry is fighting the Battle of Bakhmut to the last. Wagner fighter and exposing his troops to destruction,” the ISW analysts said.

For Ukraine, the severe degradation or destruction of Wagner’s elite force would have positive consequences beyond the battlefield, the ISW said, noting that Prigozhin’s rising notoriety and stature in Russia’s public sphere has led to a wider spread of Wagner’s militarism and ideology throughout Russia. .

Seriously damaging Prigozhin’s power and reputation in Russia would be a significant achievement from the point of view of the long-term prospects for mental health recovery in Russia. That is a goal in both America’s and Ukraine’s interests, and it raises the stakes in battle.” of Bakhmut beyond issues of terrain and battlespace geometry,” the ISW said.

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