The fight for the eastern Ukrainian city is led by the brutal mercenary group Wagner. Bachmut has no strategic relevance for Russia. But President Putin wants to win again after six months – and is willing to sacrifice his soldiers for it.
Like many places in Eastern Europe, Bachmut bears the scars of history. In the 18th century, the city was taken by Cossack rebels and occupied for three years. In 1919 it was a contested target in the Russian Civil War. In 1942, the National Socialists murdered 3,000 Jews in Artjomovsk, as the city was then called. And when Russia ignited war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Bakhmut briefly fell into the hands of separatists before being recaptured. Now the recent battle for Bakhmut is turning into one of the bloodiest battles of the current war.
Ukraine’s military offensives in Kharkiv in September and in Kherson last month have put Russia on the defensive along extensive front lines. Bakhmut is an exception together with Avdiivka in the south. Virtually all of the remaining Russian offensive power – and it’s not particularly powerful – has been concentrated in this city since August.
First, this was because Bakhmut forms the southern end of a defensive line shielding the larger cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. But now the reason for the attacks seems to be based less on strategy and more on stubbornness. Even before the war, the city had little more than 70,000 inhabitants.
The Russian military offensive was led by the Wagner unit, a mercenary force, and supported by air forces, massive artillery and legions of hapless infantry, reinforced by troops withdrawn from Kherson and newly mobilized men in recent weeks. The regular army fights during the day. The better financed and equipped with the most modern tanks Wagner units are used at night. Elite Air Force troops have joined. However, the front lines have hardly shifted.
In early December, Russia captured three villages (Kurdumivka, Ozaranivka and Zelenopillya) south of Bakhmut in order to cut westward supply lines. The attacks in the north towards Soledar, however, were unsuccessful. The Russian advance, however, came at a horrendous price. The Ukrainian artillery, which had run out of ammunition in the summer, was now able, with new military equipment from the West, to fire on the Russian attackers.
Rochan Consulting, a wartime monitoring company, says the urban terrain and Ukraine’s deployment of anti-tank squads have discouraged Russia from deploying tanks in the city, leaving infantry dangerously vulnerable.
On December 4, Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s armed forces in the east of the country, said that 50 to 100 Russian soldiers are killed in the fighting every day and about the same number are wounded. Ukrainian forces in the area are facing similar dire conditions.
The photos released by a Ukrainian soldier show trenches ankle-deep in mud and trees defoliated by the shelling, evoking World War I associations. Drone footage from Bakhmut shows a city that looks as if it has been hit by a nuclear bomb, with only the remains of buildings remaining.
In many ways, the struggle resembles a microcosm of war and its politics. Bakhmut is not a strategically important city. Even if Russia captured them, it would not have the military strength to breach any more western defenses. Russian President Putin is desperate for a first victory after almost six months – the last one was in Severodonetsk at the end of June – and is ready to put the soldiers through the meat grinder to achieve it.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the ambitious head of the Wagner units, is said to have promised Putin that his troops could succeed where the regular army had failed. Prigozhin’s personal and political fate may depend on whether he can keep his promise.
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With the approach of winter, which makes muddy ground and sub-zero temperatures more and more likely, the fighting will probably lessen. The Ukrainian counter-attacks around Bakhmut over the last few days have come to nothing. “We’re noticing a kind of reduced pace,” Avril Haines, director of America’s National Intelligence Agency, commented on December 3. At the same time, the air war intensified.
On December 5, Russia launched another series of missile attacks on Kiev and other cities. Ukraine says it has shot down more than 60 missiles out of 70 that arrived, but Ukrainian authorities are deeply concerned that the small number of missiles that continue to get through is bringing the country’s energy infrastructure to its knees.
However, the air war is no longer a one-sided affair. On the same day that the Russian barrage took place, Russia said Ukraine had used low-flying Soviet-made drones to attack two air bases in Ryazan and Saratov, more than 450 km (280 miles) across the border, killing three people and several long-range bombers were damaged. These weren’t random hits.
On December 6, another attack took place on the Chalino air base near Kursk, which is equipped with Su-30sm fighter jets. For the first time since World War II, Russia has been hit by airstrikes so deep within its borders.
The article first appeared in The Economist under the title “Russia is hurling troops at the tiny Ukrainian town of Bakhmut” and was translated by Andrea Schleipen.
The original for this article “Why Putin is now bombing an unimportant small town” comes from The Economist.