Why Bakhmut Could Define the Outcome of the War in Ukraine?

As Russian seizure of Bakhmut progresses, Ukraine says it will not give up the city

View of a destroyed building in the city of Bakhmut

Photo: The World

LatinAmerican Post | July Vanesa López Romero

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A year and a month ago, when the Russo-Ukrainian war had not yet started, Bakhmut was recognized by a few as housing the world's largest underground room in its salt mine and had more than 70,000 inhabitants. Today the small industrial city in eastern Ukraine is reduced to ruins, home to about 4,000 inhabitants, its name is in the headlines around the world and carries great symbolic importance for Ukraine and Russia. Bakhmut is the center of one of the battles with the lowest casualties in the Russo-Ukrainian war, and it is home to the Russian paramilitary group Wagner and the most specialized troops on the Ukrainian front.

Read also: Infographic: A Year of the War in Ukraine

The Battle at Bakhmut

In February of last year, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Russian military forces crossed several border points in both northern and eastern Ukraine. During the first 3 months, Ukraine managed to keep the invasion under control and from Kiev it won many battles, so Russia had to change its strategy and put all the weight of its operations in the Donbass region. It is home to the two largest eastern provinces: Lugansk and Donetsk; in the latter is Bakhmut. Russian forces tried to invade it since May 2022, managed to break in on August 1, and throughout the month carried out almost daily shelling that left the city in ruins.

Despite all the efforts by Russia to invade the city during August, the Ukrainian forces stopped all attempts and stood firm against the invasion. The fighting in the city subsided during the last months of the year and resumed in late December and early January 2023, making the campaign one of the longest and most sustained of the war. In fact, it is notorious that Russia has endeavored to send most of its military power to this city, while keeping almost all other points of attack in a static line. Ukraine has resisted the invasion of this city in such a way that it has become a symbolic representation of its resistance.

Why is Bakhmut so Important?

In recent weeks, Bakhmut has been subjected to intense fighting in which the most capable troops of each side are participating, including the Wagner group, which is also leading the line. This is a Russian paramilitary group that has served as President Vladimir Putin's private army and rose to prominence during the Donbass war between 2014 and 2015. So, you already know the region. The latter is precisely what has led to them being the ones who have the greatest Russian presence in Bakhmut.

For its part, Ukraine has sent its best military to fight in this battle, and some testimonies assure that the fight in the city is no longer done from a distance, but even comes to hand-to-hand. In a report for El País, Milos, a Czech soldier who is at the service of the Ukrainian army, assures that they defend themselves with whatever they have at hand for hand-to-hand combat and that they kill 800 Russians daily, but that there are also many Ukrainian soldiers who die daily. He doesn't say an exact number. Milos also assures that they seek to kill the Russians to prevent them from invading other places.

Now, with all these Russian invasion efforts and Ukrainian resistance, one might think that Bakhmut is of great importance in terms of military strategy. However, that strategic value is limited, although not zero. Its invasion would mean a facility to initiate the invasion to more areas to the west of the country and the opportunity to enter the line of defense of the Ukrainian force. But again, at this level, what can be done is limited. Moscow's desire for Bakhmut lies more in the symbolic. As we already mentioned, this city has maintained a very strong resistance against Russia, invading it would mean that this resistance is over.

This shows that, in war, military strategy is not the only important one and that the symbolic also has a place. A very valuable one, as we can see in this case. In a war that has been particularly nourished by symbolism, this power has great relevance one year after its start and in a scenario in which Russia has military, nuclear and political power that generates fear not only in Ukraine, but also in the international community.

In recent weeks, the Wagner group has managed to occupy almost the entire city, and billionaire Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of this group, assured that Ukrainian troops will only be able to move towards the exit of the city. The situation has also been recognized from Kiev, and withdrawal is on the table to conserve as many troops as possible for future operations. In fact, on March 7, the president of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, predicted that in the next few days Bakhmut would be forced to give in to the invasion. In addition, he assured that "this does not necessarily have to reflect a turning point in the war, but it indicates that we cannot underestimate Russia, and we have to continue sending support to Ukraine."

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