Nowhere in Ukraine is the gunfire booming as loudly as in Bakhmut. Putin’s and Zelenskyy’s troops face each other outside the gates of the Ukrainian-controlled city in the Donetsk region, shelling each other with heavy artillery every day. What sounds like a nerve-wracking final sprint is actually a grueling trench warfare. After all, these fights have been going on in almost the same position since July. The gains in terrain are hardly noticeable, 200 meters are already considered a success. On the other hand, both sides noticeably feel the losses.
“Like disposable soldiers”, as the Ukrainian artilleryman Volodymyr describes it in the “Washington Post”, Russia sends its troops onto the battlefield to take Bakhmut and thus bring the currently only Russian offensive to a glorious end.
Honor is probably the most important thing for Russia, because from a strategic point of view the city in eastern Ukraine has long since become unimportant for Moscow. Once the capture of Bakhmut was supposed to pave the way for the capture of the cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, which would have occupied the entire Donetsk region for the Russian army.
However, when Ukraine then liberated the Kharkov region bordering Donetsk in a lightning offensive at the beginning of September, including the two hubs Izyum and Kupiansk, which ensured the supply of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, Bakhmut’s strategic importance also ended. After all, the city, which once had a population of 70,000, could not defend the Donetsk region without the Izyum hub. The planned conquest of Karamatorsk and Slowiansk has now become obsolete anyway due to a lack of ammunition and personnel problems.
Nevertheless, Russian troops are bombing Bakhmut with an unprecedented intensity. “In the six months I’ve been in Bakhmut, I’ve never seen artillery fire like this,” a Ukrainian soldier told the New York Times on condition of anonymity.
The fight for the city has another use besides the Russian war honor for Putin. After all, the heavy attacks forced Ukraine to withdraw its troops from other positions in the country in the direction of Bakhmut. The advantage for Putin is that Ukraine’s personnel concentration on the city near Donetsk means that potential further Ukrainian offensives can be prevented for the time being.
“Baghmut battles consume forces that could be used elsewhere,” says Michael Kofman, director of Russia Studies at C.N.A., a research institute in Arlington, Virginia. In recent weeks, Kyiv has withdrawn soldiers and special forces from all possible units in Ukraine, including the 93rd Mechanized Brigade and the 58th Motorized Infantry Brigade. They are designed to plug holes in defenses and replenish units that have suffered heavy casualties.
Even Russia does not shy away from sending masses of soldiers to Bakhmut, despite personnel shortages. In particular, soldiers from the Wagner mercenary group and the former Cherson Front were now fighting for the city, according to an anonymous US defense official and Ukrainian military. Likewise, newly mobilized soldiers and recruited prisoners reinforce the Russian positions at the front. According to Kofman, they are one thing above all for Moscow: “dispensable”.
This would not least show their behavior in combat, since they “simply pick up their guns and go, just like in Soviet times,” a Ukrainian doctor in Bakhmut told the New York Times. “One dies and the next one shows up the same way.”
The Ukrainian soldier Jura claims to have observed the supposedly robot-like advances of the Russian soldiers in Bakhmut. Curiously, numerous Russian soldiers approaching the Ukrainian positions would not defend themselves under fire, would not shoot back, would not duck. “They just keep walking like in slow motion,” he told Finnish news portal Iltalehti. In his estimation, they could be under the influence of drugs. “With night vision goggles, we can see them coming at us like zombies,” he said. However, according to Jura, the possibly stunned forces are always a danger: “There are more and more of them.”