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.
Bakhmut’s importance has risen since November, when Ukraine retook the southern city of Kherson and the onset of winter slowed the pace of fighting elsewhere. This week, Russia claimed to have captured the town of Soledar, an even smaller city less than 10 miles outside Bakhmut. The Ukrainian government claims its troops are still holding out there, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy acknowledged that the situation in the city is “difficult.”
“And what did Russia want to gain there?” Zelenskyy asked in a televised address. “Everything is completely destroyed, there is almost no life left. And thousands of their people were lost: The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes. This is what madness looks like.”
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
Bakhmut had a prewar population of around 70,000, which has now shrunk to fewer than 10,000. During the Soviet era, it was known as Artemivsk, after Fyodor Sergeyev, aka “Comrade Artem,” a prominent Bolshevik and ally of Joseph Stalin from Donetsk. The city was renamed in 2016, but the old name is still used in Russia. Before the war, it was known for its sparkling wines and for the salt mines in the surrounding regions. The area also saw heavy fighting during the initial Russian invasion of 2014.
The current battle of Bakhmut began at the beginning of August, after the Russian capture of the nearby cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. Those gains came during the Russian military’s grinding summer offensive to take Donetsk, one of the Ukrainian regions that Moscow has now formally claimed as Russian territory. In the first phase of the fighting, the battle for Bakhmut was waged primarily by the Russian military, but for the last few months, it’s been fought mostly by the Wagner Group, using fighters recruited from Russian prisons, often fighting in poorly organized waves and suffering heavy casualties. One Ukrainian soldier told the Kyiv Independent, “Sometimes we can hear Wagner commanders talk on communications: ‘Run to the Ukrainian trenches, and whoever makes it — you know what to do.’”
The exact casualty tolls on the two sides are unknown. A U.S. official quoted by Reuters estimated last week that out of Wagner’s force of 50,000 mercenaries, 4,100 had been killed and 10,000 wounded, many of them in fighting around Bakhmut. A top Ukrainian military officer claimed in December that between 50 and 100 Russian troops were dying every day in the Bakhmut battle.
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.
Accounts of the fighting itself sound alternately antiquated and futuristic. On the one hand, there are waves of Russian infantry charging over a no man’s land of artillery craters into waiting machine gun nests, like something out of the Western Front in 1916. On the other hand, a Ukrainian artillery spotter sits in an office behind the front lines, directing fire on Bakhmut from an iPad connected to a fleet of drones.
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.”
In Ukraine, the city has taken on enormous political significance. “Hold Bakhmut!” has become a national rallying cry, and Zelenskyy made a point of visiting the front lines in the city immediately before his trip to Washington in December.
But the commander of Ukraine’s land forces, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, also said in a television interview in December, “From the military standpoint, Bakhmut doesn’t have strategic significance.”
That may be an effort by the Ukrainians to downplay the importance of a potential setback, but at least some voices in Russia view Bakhmut the same way. Igor Girkin, the former FSB officer also known as Strelkov, who helped launch the original war in the Donbas in 2014 and has emerged as one of the most prominent hawks criticizing the Russian war effort, called the amount of resources being devoted to Bakhmut “idiotic,” noting that if the city falls, Ukrainian forces will likely just fall back to other positions nearby. “It’s chewing through the enemy’s defenses according to the World War I model,” he lamented in a recent video, in which he called for a revamping of Russia’s offensive strategy.
For Ukrainians, there’s a grim calculation behind the defense of Bakhmut. Even if the city itself isn’t that important, it’s worth defending simply because the resources the Russians are pouring into the battle. As U.S. analysts Michael Kofman and Rob Lee argued in a recent paper, the “successes” of the Russian advance in the Donbas in the spring and summer, which required enormous expenditures of manpower and ammunition, left Russian lines exhausted and vulnerable, setting up the successful counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson in the fall.
The Russian strategy of raining artillery on Bakhmut for months, turning the city into rubble, may be similarly draining. U.S. and Ukrainian officials say the Russian rate of daily fire has fallen across Ukraine about 75 percent from its wartime high. The more shells and men Russia sends into Bakhmut, the less it will have available for a potential new offensive in the spring. But of course, Ukraine is bleeding troops and resources in Bakhmut as well.
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
U.S. officials have recently suggested that Wagner Group boss Prigozhin may be so intent on taking Bakhmut because of the salt and gypsum mines that surround the city. This would be in character for Prigozhin, who is believed to have traded Wagner’s security services for mining concessions in several countries in Africa on the Kremlin‘s behalf. But it’s also likely he has more than salt on the mind.
Nicknamed “Putin’s chef” for his roots in the catering business, Prigozhin has stepped out of the shadows since the war began to become a popular and influential political figure in his own right. In the process, he has often publicly criticized the Russian military and its leaders, demanding the replacement of senior generals. It’s widely believed that a power struggle in the Kremlin has developed between a faction led by Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and military chief of staff Valeriy Gerasimov, and another led by Prigozhin and Sergei Surovikin, the general who, with Prigozhin’s support, was appointed to take charge of forces in Ukraine three months ago.
Bakhmut is an opportunity for Prigozhin’s faction to demonstrate its competence compared with its rivals in the Russian military. Prigozhin has publicly accused the military of hampering Wagner’s efforts to take the city by withholding ammunition supplies. In December, Wagner released a video in which two of its fighters in Bakhmut, wearing masks, unleashed a blistering attack on Gerasimov. “We are fighting the entire Ukrainian army, and where are you? There’s only one word to describe what you are,” they said before using a homophobic slur. Prigozhin publicly supported the fighters in the video.
For the moment, though, Gerasimov may have the upper hand. On Wednesday, Putin handed him direct control over the war in Ukraine, effectively demoting Surovikin. Of course, this may also be something of a poisoned chalice: Gerasimov will be on the hook for future failures. Kremlin analyst Tatiana Stanovaya tweeted on Wednesday that Putin appears to be “wavering between” the two factions in an effort to salvage the foundering war effort. All of this behind-the-scenes maneuvering only makes it more vital for Prigozhin to demonstrate some success in Bakhmut.
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.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.