Russia has claimed control of Bakhmut, a city at the center of one of the most prolonged and brutal battles of the Ukraine war. Moscow is declaring it a major victory, but it is one that comes at an astounding cost. And exactly what the city’s capture means for the future course of the conflict is far less clear.
Bakhmut holds limited strategic value, though the approximately nine-month-long battle took on political and rhetorical significance for both sides. It also imposed real losses, as the battle for control of the city mutually attrited Russian and Ukrainian forces and firepower.
Over the weekend, Russia’s Ministry of Defense announced that Russia had finally taken Bakhmut, and Russian President Vladimir Putin celebrated the “liberation” of the city. Both credited the Wagner Group, the paramilitary group tied to the increasingly vocal oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, for its role in the operation.
Ukrainian military and defense officials, meanwhile, insisted all was not lost, and that Ukrainian forces were still controlling parts of Bakhmut and fighting continued in the suburban outskirts. “Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, according to a Telegram post from Ukraine’s General Staff and reported in the New York Times.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who spent the weekend at the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, shoring up support for Ukraine, told reporters that he did not think Russia had taken Bakhmut, but said, “You have to understand that there is nothing. They’ve destroyed everything. There are no buildings.”
“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts. There is nothing in this place,” he added.
Here is video with the reporter’s question.— Christopher Miller (@ChristopherJM) May 21, 2023
Reporter: “Is Bakhmut still in Ukraine’s hands? The Russians say they’ve taken Bakhmut.”
Zelensky: “I think no…”
His team tells me he was answering about the second part of the question. pic.twitter.com/GxyjfrE0Ei
Bakhmut has been a grind, and has apparently been on the verge of falling for weeks. But Ukraine continued to hold on, even as some observers questioned whether Ukraine’s defense of the city was worth the mounting losses. But Ukraine recently claimed to have pushed Russia back in some areas, and has made gains northwest and southwest of Bakhmut, which could make it harder for Russia to push outward.
It is hard to know exactly how the lines of control break down within the city right now. Both Russia and Ukraine have incentives for pushing their particular narrative.
If Russia has fully taken Bakhmut, it will be its first major territorial gain since last summer. Russia’s winter counteroffensive failed to make significant advances, and Bakhmut — or what’s left of it — is their premiere achievement so far this year.
Ukraine, of course, is not keen to lose any city to Russian control. Ukrainian forces put up a fierce defense of Bakhmut, partly as an effort to wear down Moscow as Ukraine plots its expected counteroffensive. It also used the fight to rhetorically build up Ukrainian troops, another example of their bravery and relentlessness against Russian cruelty.
Exactly how important Bakhmut is to the larger war is a question that will likely be answered over the next months and weeks. Russia may have finally seized Bakhmut, but like its capture of Mariupol, the Kremlin’s prize is a bombed-out city. Now Russian forces need to defend and hold on to it.
Bakhmut, and the big questions about what’s next
The battle for Bakhmut, once a city of about 70,000, is the longest of the Ukraine war. Russia launched its offensive in earnest in August and September of last year. A brutal, almost archaic battle has unfolded there: trench warfare, heavy artillery, and human wave attacks.
The United States estimated earlier this month that Russia has suffered 100,000 casualties since December, including 20,000 killed, many of those on the battlefields of Bakhmut. Russia relied on fighters from the Wagner Group, specifically convicts who were recruited to serve as cannon fodder for this campaign. Those tactics intensified the death toll for Russia, but also for Ukraine. Ukraine’s losses are less clear, and even if they are not as profound as Russia’s, Kyiv also suffered heavy casualties, and it burned through equipment and artillery in the fight.
The scale of the carnage is even more jarring because the investments Russia and Ukraine made in Bakhmut potentially eclipse the value of the terrain itself. “It was a minor crossroads between different locations,” said Nick Reynolds, research fellow for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). “But the reality is, it’s one town amongst many in eastern Ukraine.”
Wagner’s future role in Bakhmut, and beyond, is also unclear. Prigozhin has openly sparred with the Russian military for its failures in Ukraine, blaming top brass for failing to fully equip and supply ammo to soldiers. Prigozhin is a Putin ally and a political survivor, but that may have its limits in Putin’s Russia. Official Russian statements credited Wagner for its contributions in Bakhmut, but the paramilitary didn’t get a lot of airtime during the victory celebrations on state-run TV, according to the New York Times.
Prigozhin has also said that Wagner will withdraw its forces from Bakhmut on Thursday, allowing them to rest and recover, as conventional forces rotate in. Whether that will actually happen is unclear, but whoever is there — Russian soldiers or Wagner fighters — will now have to hold and reinforce the city.
That may actually play to Ukraine’s advantage. Even as Ukraine admits that it only has a small foothold in the city itself, fighting continues in the northern and southern suburban outskirts.
In recent weeks, Ukraine has also made advances in the heights around the city. This could give Ukraine an advantage in keeping Russian forces in check, and it puts Ukraine in a favorable position to encircle Russian forces within the city.
Russian forces are worn down, and if Wagner pulls out or Moscow has to rotate in more troops, that could leave Russia vulnerable. “I think that it’s a good time to keep the Russians on their toes, now they’ve declared this victory,” said Simon Schlegel, senior Ukraine analyst for the International Crisis Group, speaking from Kyiv. “If they would lose territory around Bakhmut in the next couple of days, that will be very embarrassing.”
A Ukrainian counteroffensive has been expected for weeks, and it’s impossible to say exactly whether or how Bakhmut will fit into Kyiv’s plans. But if Russia has to bring reinforcements to Bakhmut, it may create some vulnerabilities elsewhere along Russia’s heavily fortified defensive lines — not a bad situation for Kyiv ahead of a potential offensive.
The significance, then, of Bakhmut’s capture — or almost capture — is still unfolding. Bakhmut is one dot on the map for Russia, and it hardly moves Moscow closer toward its territorial aims, including taking all of the Donbas.
Kyiv is preparing, and laying ground for, its offensive, both militarily and politically. Ukraine has bet that Russia’s victory in Bakhmut will be costly, and potentially a precarious one. And that may signal the end of this latest phase of the war, and the start of another.