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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

What does Russia’s success in Bakhmut mean for the war in Ukraine?

A Ukrainian soldier wounded in an artillery strike receives medical treatment at a clinic in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Oct. 19, 2022.

Russia has declared victory in its devastating, nearly yearlong assault on Bakhmut, and its Wagner mercenaries have begun to withdraw. Ukraine, whose forces have made small gains on the outskirts, has signaled that it is now focused on making it difficult for Moscow to hold onto the city.

Whatever comes next, Ukraine’s setback in Bakhmut is a significant moment in Russia’s invasion, its first military success since last summer. Ukraine says a small number of its soldiers are still in the eastern city, but has all but conceded that the intense and bloody defense of the city is over.

After Moscow launched its assault on Bakhmut, the city became the scene of the war’s deadliest and most prolonged urban combat in Europe since World War II, with tens of thousands of casualties estimated on both sides.

While military analysts say that Bakhmut holds little strategic significance, Russia and Ukraine have remained firm in their justifications for fighting there, each viewing the battle as vital for weakening the other.

Here is a look at the battle and what it could mean for the future of the war.

Where is Bakhmut?

The 16-square-mile city, which was home to some 70,000 people before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, is in the eastern industrial region known as the Donbas. Surrounded by sunflower fields and salt mines, Bakhmut was long known for a sparkling-wine plant where millions of bottles aged underground in gypsum caves.

Months of artillery bombardment — followed by grinding street battles where soldiers often fought block by block as the Russians closed in — reduced Bakhmut’s leafy streets and apartment buildings to an urban wasteland. All but a few thousand residents have fled. The damage is so severe that Bakhmut has been compared to Aleppo, the Syrian city that was razed during that country’s civil war.

What happened?

On Saturday, the head of Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group said that his mercenaries had captured Bakhmut. The following day, the Russian Defense Ministry declared that Bakhmut had fallen, giving partial credit to Wagner forces.

For a time, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine and his military insisted that the fighting was continuing. But on Monday, a deputy Ukrainian defense minister, Hanna Maliar, essentially acknowledged that the city had been lost, saying that the Russians were “mopping up” to clear the remaining Ukrainian soldiers from the ruins.

Why did Russian President Vladimir Putin want to capture Bakhmut?

Bakhmut emerged as one of Moscow’s primary targets in eastern Ukraine, with Russian officials calling it a necessary prize in the campaign to seize the entire region known as the Donbas.

But the city itself is not particularly valuable in military terms, according to U.S. officials. They believe that Moscow’s unrelenting commitment to wresting it from Ukraine was an indication of the Kremlin’s desperation for a battlefield victory after months of losses and retreats along the northeastern and southern fronts.

Why was Bakhmut important to Ukraine?

Zelenskyy has defended his military’s efforts to hold Bakhmut, even as losses mounted, saying that the battle helped wear down Russian forces and prevented them from advancing deeper into eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine had used national guard and border guard troops to defend the city’s perimeter, then relied on more experienced combat soldiers in recent months as its hold on the city weakened. Soldiers fought in close-range combat from abandoned buildings, basements and trenches, with thousands of others stationed in surrounding fields and villages.

The tenacious defense staved off recurring waves of Russian attacks aimed at encircling and capturing the city. Zelenskyy referred to the city as Ukraine’s “fortress,” and “Hold Bakhmut” became a national rallying cry.

Ukrainian troops’ familiarity with the mazes of ruins and hiding places hindered Russia’s ability to fully leverage its superior weaponry and artillery. And by drawing out the battle, Ukraine’s military sought to buy time to amass more ammunition and weapons from Western allies and prepare its troops for a counteroffensive expected in the coming weeks.

How many have died in Bakhmut?

Losses on both sides have been staggering, especially given the minimal amount of territory that changed hands, although there is no reliable estimate of the toll. President Joe Biden said over the weekend that around 100,000 Russian soldiers had been killed or wounded in the battle for the city. Ukraine has also suffered substantial losses.

On the Russian side, the soaring death toll reflected the Kremlin’s use of waves of soldiers, including lightly trained new recruits and former convicts who had joined the Wagner paramilitary group, to mount near-suicidal ground assaults to test Ukrainian defenses. Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said in an interview published late Tuesday that he had lost 20,000 troops, half of which were former convicts, in the battle. The other half were professional recruits, which Wagner had been forced to rely on as its ill-trained prisoner brigade was depleted by losses. Russian paratroopers and special forces soldiers also joined the fight in recent months.

A State Department spokesperson said the United States believes that Prigozhin’s estimate is a significant undercount of Russia’s casualties in Bakhmut.

While the Ukrainians have not divulged their own losses, medics operating on the front line said that they had been overwhelmed by wounded soldiers each day at the height of the fighting.

How does Ukraine’s setback in Bakhmut change things?

A full Russian victory in Bakhmut may be largely symbolic. The city is smaller than other urban areas in the Donbas that the Kremlin has sought to claim, and, while it lies near some important highways, Bakhmut may not necessarily serve as a springboard for Russian forces to push deeper into the Donbas.

Russia’s plans for a renewed offensive in eastern Ukraine fizzled over the winter, with Ukrainian forces ambushing a tank assault on the coal-mining town of Vuhledar and holding on to the town of Avdiivka despite relentless shelling. Like last summer, when Russia seized the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk only after prolonged, deadly battles, Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut may have degraded Russia’s ability to immediately seize more territory.

Analysts say that Russia has lost so much in its attempts to secure Bakhmut that it seems unlikely Moscow’s troops will be able to marshal new resources to mount successful battles on the same scale elsewhere in the region. Communication problems in the Russian ranks, and long-standing tensions between Wagner and Russia’s military leadership, could hinder Moscow’s efforts to hold the city or to redeploy forces elsewhere, according to experts.

Prigozhin announced Thursday that his troops had started to withdraw from Bakhmut and would transfer their positions to regular Russian forces. That could leave Russian troops in the city vulnerable to counterattacks from the Ukrainians, who have secured territory on the city’s outskirts in recent weeks and are preparing for a broader offensive elsewhere along the 600-mile front line. The Ukrainian military may also be looking to exploit any weaknesses that emerge as Russia rotates its troops.

But the battle could also have implications for Ukraine’s ability to carry out a counteroffensive. Defending Bakhmut cost Ukrainian forces some of their most capable troops, along with at times thousands of artillery shells a day, leading the Pentagon at one point to warn Ukraine against wasting ammunition it might need elsewhere in the war.

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