“What are the Consequences If Bakhmut Falls Under Russian Control?”
Ukrainian infantrymen with the 28th Brigade view damaged buildings while driving to a frontline position facing Russian troops on March 05, 2023 outside of Bakhmut, Ukraine.
John Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images
After seven months of fighting over the industrial city of Bakhmut in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, it’s not surprising that neither Ukraine nor Russia want to capitulate over its defense — or capture.
But now it looks increasingly likely that Russia, through the sheer weight of manpower expended on relentless fighting there, particularly by Moscow’s mercenary forces in the Wagner Group, could be gaining the upper hand.
On Wednesday, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russia’s mercenary forces fighting in Bakhmut (a city that Russia calls “Artemovsk”) said that Wagner had taken full control of the eastern part, according to comments published by Russian state news outlet Tass.
Despite its forces appearing vulnerable to encirclement, Ukraine vowed on Monday to continue defending the city and to send in reinforcements, defying expectations that a tactical withdrawal was in the cards.
Both Russia and Ukraine have thrown masses of personnel into their bids to capture, and defend, Bakhmut, respectively, with both claiming to have inflicted hundreds of losses on each others’ forces on a daily basis.
Aside from atoning for these sacrifices with some kind of victory in Bakhmut, there are several other reasons why both sides have a reason to continue fighting until the bitter end, ranging from the symbolic to the militarily expedient.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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, after a year of fighting, matters.
Still, the merits of fighting on in Bakhmut — a city with a population of around 70,000 and known for its salt mining industry before the war — have been questioned, with military analysts and officials noting that even if Bakhmut falls into Russian hands, it won’t change the course of the war dramatically.
An aerial view of destruction in Bakhmut on Feb. 27, 2023. Russian forces appear to be tightening the noose around the city in Donetsk.
– | Afp | Getty Images
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters Monday when asked about the significance of the battle over Bakhmut.
“The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” he added, noting that he would not predict when Bakhmut might fall to Russian forces.
Ukrainian officials say the city is now largely lying in ruins, reducing any value it could have for Russia whereas for Kyiv, it’s a part of Ukraine. “I think it’s more about the symbolic value than the actual strategic value,” Yuriy Sak, an advisor in Ukraine’s defense ministry, told CNBC.
“It’s not a big city … by now it’s ruins, it’s pulverized. There are a couple of thousand people living in underground shelters but it’s a deserted city, there’s only constant artillery and street-to-street fighting. Strategically, I think for both sides now, it’s more of a symbol, that’s why we call it the ‘fortress’ of Bakhmut,” Sak said.
The Wagner private military company has a point to prove in Bakhmut as it looks to enhance its credibility within the Kremlin and Russia’s defense ministry (with which Prigozhin has had a very public spat) as well as among the Russian public and military blogosphere.
Michael Clarke, former director general of British defense and security think tank RUSI, agreed Tuesday that “there’s no enormous strategic value in Bakhmut” but noted that Russia, as well as Ukraine, has attributed a special symbolic significance to the city.
“For seven months now, the Wagner Group … has made Bakhmut a target in order to show that they can take ground when the rest of the Russian army were losing ground. So it’s become a massive symbolic issue,” Clarke told BBC radio, adding that he didn’t believe the fall of Bakhmut was inevitable but said it was “most likely.”
“The Ukrainians are in a situation now where they’ve got to decide whether they live with the symbolic problem of giving it up or do they lose more troops defending it.”
A soldier from a Ukrainian assault brigade walks along a muddy road used to transport and position British-made L118 105mm Howitzers, on March 4, 2023, near Bakhmut, Ukraine.
John Moore | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Whether Ukraine will be able to keep on supplying its troops in Bakhmut is a critical issue. On Tuesday, the British Ministry of Defence noted that a Russian strike destroyed a bridge over the only paved supply road into Bakhmut still under Ukrainian control, noting in an intelligence update that “muddy conditions are likely hampering Ukrainian resupply efforts as they increasingly resort to using unpaved tracks.”
Clarke said the southwest of Bakhmut still offered Ukraine a way in and out of Bakhmut currently but once that route is cut off “they will have to get out.”
Russia has made no bones about the fact that it sees capturing Bakhmut as a way to sever Ukrainian supply routes in the wider Donetsk region, capturing which is a key military goal for Russia. Bakhmut serves as a transportation hub for Ukraine supplying its troops in the region although Ukrainian officials have sought to downplay the impact any fall of Bakhmut would have on the war effort.
Ukrainian military vehicles drive along a road outside of 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 region’s Kyiv-appointed governor accusing Russia of using scorched-earth tactics.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Nonetheless, Ukraine is wary that Russia will use the city as a stepping stone to advancing on other cities in eastern Ukraine, consolidating their military occupation of the region.
On Tuesday, Zelenskyy warned that Russian troops will have “open road” to key cities in eastern Ukraine if they seize Bakhmut.
“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky told CNN, insisting that Kyiv’s military brass is united in prolonging its 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 open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction. That’s why our guys are standing there.”
Ukraine’s fears that capturing Bakhmut would allow Russians to advance further are not universally shared. Analysts say Russia has depleted so much manpower during the battle for Bakhmut that it could leave them spent.
Experts at the Institute for the Study of War think tank note that Bakhmut is not “intrinsically significant operationally or strategically,” but note that, for Russia, taking Bakhmut is “necessary but not sufficient for further Russian advances” in the Donetsk region.
“Russian forces have already taken such heavy losses fighting for the city that their attack will very likely culminate after they have secured it — if not before. The loss of Bakhmut is not, therefore, of major operational or strategic concern to Ukraine, as Secretary Austin and others have observed,” it said in analysis Monday.
Curbing mercenary momentum
Ukraine says there is another rationale to fighting on in Bakhmut if Russia’s best fighting units are expended in the process.
The Defense Ministry said Monday that the commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, had once again visited the units defending Bakhmut and had noted that “the enemy threw Wagner’s additional forces into battle” and that Ukraine’s forces had “inflicted significant losses on the enemy, destroyed a large amount of equipment, forced Wagner’s best assault units into battle, and reduced the enemy’s offensive potential.”
Defense analysts note that Wagner’s founder Priogozhin himself now appears wary that the battle of Bakhmut could, ISW analysts said, “severely degrade the Wagner Group’s best forces, depriving Russia of some of its most effective and most difficult-to-replace shock troops.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close ally of Vladimir Putin, is the head Russia’s Wagner mercenary group and a series of other companies.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images
“Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin apparently fears that his forces are being expended in exactly this way. Prigozhin made a number of statements on March 5 and 6 that suggest that he fears that the Russian Ministry of Defense is fighting the Battle of Bakhmut to the last Wagner fighter and exposing his forces to destruction,” the ISW analysts said.
For Ukraine, the severe degradation or destruction of the elite Wagner fighting force would have positive ramifications beyond the battlefield, the ISW said, noting that Prigozhin’s increasing prominence and status in Russia’s public sphere has brought about a wider dissemination of Wagner’s militarism and ideology throughout Russia.
“Badly damaging Prigozhin’s power and reputation within Russia would be an important accomplishment from the standpoint of the long-term prospects for restoring sanity in Russia. That is an aim in America’s interests as well as in Ukraine’s, and it raises the stakes in the Battle of Bakhmut beyond matters of terrain and battlespace geometry,” the ISW said.