The battle of Bakhmut is approaching a tipping point, with Russia throwing waves of fresh troops into the fight as it tries to break Ukraine’s grip on the eastern city and secure president Vladimir Putin’s first significant battlefield victory since early summer.
After eight months of grinding combat, Russian forces are bearing down on the city from three directions, leaving Ukraine’s main supply line under severe pressure and Kyiv facing an agonising choice over the cost of holding its ground.
While analysts say Bakhmut has little military significance, the city has become the focal point of both Ukrainian resistance and Moscow’s drive to regain battlefield momentum.
Ukrainians have taken to referring to the city in recent months as “Fortress Bakhmut” because it has remained standing after incessant heavy fighting. And “Bakhmut holds” has become a battle cry used by soldiers and their supporters, as well as president Volodymyr Zelenskiy in his nightly addresses.
But with relentless shelling and first World War-style attacks, Russian forces have managed to capture several towns and villages around Bakhmut in recent weeks. Most notable among them was the salt mining town of Soledar, 15km to the north.
Fighters from the Wagner Group, a mercenary organisation founded by close Putin ally Evgeny Prigozhin, have been in the vanguard of the Russian assault. Many of its fighters were recruited from prison colonies in far-flung Russian regions. They were used as “cannon fodder”, Ukrainian soldiers told the Financial Times during a visit in December.
But Denys Yarolavskyi, the commander of a Ukrainian unit operating in Bakhmut, said that well-trained Russian regular troops were now supporting the Wagner fighters in their attempt to encircle the city.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think-tank, corroborated this. “The introduction of Russian conventional forces to the Bakhmut frontline has offset the culmination of the Wagner Group’s offensive and retained the initiative for Russian operations around the city,” it said in an assessment on Wednesday.
Their latest successes prompted Russian forces on Wednesday to say they had effectively surrounded the city.
“Bakhmut is now operationally encircled [and] our forces are closing the ring around the city,” said Yan Gagin, an official in the Russian puppet administration in the occupied regional capital of Donetsk.
If correct, this could prompt Kyiv to order the withdrawal of its forces from the city. But Ukrainian military officials denied that it was true and stressed that the Bakhmut-Kostyantynivka highway, a crucial supply route for the Ukrainian army and evacuation artery for civilians, remained under their control.
“The highway to Bakhmut is not blocked,” Serhii Cherevatyi, the spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern command, said on state television on Tuesday. “Everything is being done to prevent [Russian forces] from blocking the traffic of our units. All the necessary equipment, ammunition, food etc are being delivered to Bakhmut.”
A Ukrainian soldier fighting in Bakhmut near the village of Ivanivske, where Russian forces have focused their attacks, said he and his men were confident that they could hold the line. He said that the fighting was “intense”.
“They are throwing everything they have at us.”
However, Konrad Muzyka, director of Rochan Consulting and a defence analyst tracking the war, wrote in a report on Wednesday that the “overall situation in the Bakhmut area is deteriorating for Ukrainians, mainly because Russian fire controls the main supply roads leading to the city”.
Cherevatyi said Bakhmut might be evacuated if generals felt it was necessary to minimise troop losses and take better positions.
Commanders cannot, however, withdraw troops “just like that”, he said. “The military leadership is considering various potential scenarios and closely observes the enemy,” he said, adding that attempts were being made to push back Russian forces.
There is no official death toll for the battle of Bakhmut, which began in May and has raged ever since. Both sides have at times claimed to have killed up to hundreds of enemy troops each day. Civilians have also been killed at an alarming rate.
Famous for its salt mines and sparkling-wine production, Bakhmut was home to more than 70,000 people before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February last year.
Oleksiy Reva, who has served as mayor of Bakhmut for 33 years, said on Wednesday that just 6,500 remained. More than 60 per cent of the city’s buildings had been damaged or destroyed by Russian air strikes and shelling, and there has been no electricity, heating or water for more than four months, he added.
Russian shelling on Tuesday killed a 70-year-old man and 12-year-old boy, and injured six others between the ages of 16 and 66, according to Reva. Pavlo Kyrylenko, the Donetsk region governor, shared images that he said were the aftermath of the attack. They showed a large hole in the brick wall of a pharmacy, the body of a boy dressed in a track suit splayed on the ground, and a large pool of blood.
When the FT visited in December, residents fetched water from streams, cooked food over open fires in the street, and queued for humanitarian aid near the destroyed Palace of Culture in the heart of the city. Explosions or automatic gunfire could be heard every few seconds.
Russia believes that capturing Bakhmut will open the door to its forces seizing the entire Donbas province. But while Bakhmut serves as a regional hub with several highways leading to strategic cities, such as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, advancing beyond Bakhmut is unlikely to be any easier than the fight to take it. The terrain is a series of rolling hills, valleys and jagged white stone not easily traversed, even with all-terrain vehicles.
“Unless there is a collapse of Ukrainian defensive lines, Russians face hard battles moving forward,” Muzyka added.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023