War in Ukraine: Why Bakhmut is the focus of one of the conflict's bloodiest battles

Heavy and persistent fighting over the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region has lasted more than seven months. According to local authorities, 60% of the city has been destroyed. Both Moscow and Kyiv claim the other side has suffered heavy losses.

In February, Western observers began to speculate that Ukrainian forces might abandon the defence of Bakhmut, and focus instead on launching their own counteroffensives. But why is the battle for Bakhmut still raging on?

Is Bakhmut strategically important?

Russia's initial attacks on Bakhmut may have been part of a wider plan to encircle Ukrainian army units near Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, according to Western analysts.

Sustained shelling of the eastern city began in mid-May last year, followed by a series of battles for control of its roads.

Moscow's assault on the city is believed to have begun on 1 August. But just three weeks later, the offensive appeared to run out of steam, and between September and October, Ukraine conducted a successful counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region, before reaching the Russian border.

After that, Russian military commanders appeared to lose interest in Bakhmut. But by then, troops on both sides were already bogged down in stubborn battles for the city.

"Unfortunately, what happens, it's like Verdun, once a lot of people start dying for a place, it doesn't really matter. You've got blood capital already spent," explained Patrick Bury, Associate Professor at the University of Bath.

"And then because of that spend of blood it becomes politically significant. Once people start attacking and need a win, it takes on a whole little world of its own," he told Euronews.

What does Bakhmut mean for Moscow?

For Russia, Bakhmut is a theoretical opportunity to declare victory, to "compensate" for military setbacks suffered last year. Indeed, in December, Ukrainian and Western observers reported that Bakhmut had become Moscow's main target and that it had deployed significant manpower in a bid to capture it.

Russia's Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, called Bakhmut the key to a further offensive in the Donbas. But Western experts doubt that Russia will have the capacity to build on its success if the city is taken.

"The Russians haven't demonstrated that they're good at doing breakthroughs yet in the way that Ukraine has," Bury explained.

"The Russian logistics are pretty poor, right? So if they do break through, they'll be slowed down anyway by their logistical problems, which existed before this," he added.

What does Bakhmut mean to Kyiv?

For Ukraine, Bakhmut has become a symbol of heroic resistance. Kyiv points out that prolonged fighting near the city has pinned down many Russian troops, preventing Moscow from conducting offensive operations elsewhere while inflicting heavy losses in manpower and equipment on Russian forces.

Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
A Ukrainian serviceman who recently returned from the trenches of Bakhmut smokes a cigarette in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 8, 2023. - Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved

NATO estimates that five Russians are being killed in Bakhmut for every Ukrainian casualty.

"What's really going on is the Ukrainians are using it as a defensive battle, basically a set-piece battle at this stage to inflict the highest amount of casualties on the Russian attackers at the lowest possible cost to themselves before unleashing a counter-punch or two against Russia at a time of Ukraine's choice and also a place of their choosing," Bury told Euronews.

Prigozhin and Defence Ministry Conflict

Russia's battle for Bakhmut also includes a unique dimension. Yevgeny Prigozhin's Wagner PMC  (Private Military Company) mercenaries have played a key role in Russia's quest for the city.

The businessman is, in fact, in open conflict with the leadership of the Russian armed forces, to the point of exchanging insults with the head of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov.

AP/PRIGOZHIN PRESS SERVICE
Handout photo taken from video released by Prigozhin Press Service on Friday, March 3, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Wagner Group military company, - AP/PRIGOZHIN PRESS SERVICE

Experts claim Prigozhin's ambitions could be one factor as to why the battle for Bakhmut rages on.

"It came to prominence when Wagner [...] really came to power and sort of said, 'we'll do this, we'll show you how to win. The Russian army is incompetent and we'll do it!' And then they throw everything at [it],"  Bury told Euronews.

Now success or failure at Bakhmut could determine the fate of the PMCs and Prigozhin himself.