NIAS Europe Studies

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NIAS Europe Studies
The Battle for Bakhmut: Significance, Objectives, Course, and What Next

  Rishika Yadav, Sreeja JS, Nithyashree RB, and Melvin George
Rishika Yadav is a Research Assistant in NIAS Europe Studies at NIAS. Nithyashree RB, Sreeja JS, and Melvin George are Research Interns in NIAS Europe Studies at NIAS.

About the Authors

Rishika Yadav is a Research Assistant in NIAS Europe Studies at NIAS. Nithyashree RB, Sreeja JS, and Melvin George are Research Interns in NIAS Europe Studies at NIAS. 

Ukraine’s setback in Bakhmut is crucial in the ongoing war in Ukraine. After Moscow began its assault on the city, it witnessed the war’s bloodiest and most prolonged urban combat in Europe since World War II, with thousands dead and the city in ruins. The city holds little strategic value for the West and the military analysts. For Ukraine and Russia, it holds both strategic and symbolic significance. Russia and Ukraine were firm in their justifications throughout the course of the battle of Bakhmut, as each viewed it as crucial to weaken the other. Bakhmut is a city in the eastern industrial region of Donbas and was home to around 70,000 people before the war.

Geographic Significance
Bakhmut is a city located in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast, about 80 kilometers northeast of the regional capital, Donetsk. Situated along the banks of the Bakhmutka River, just 20 kilometers west of the administrative border with the Luhansk region, the city is surrounded by hilly terrain. It lies within the steppe zone, characterized by flat grasslands and a continental climate featuring hot summers and cold winters, making it vulnerable to mortar and rocket fire and is crucial for moving soldiers and supplies to nearby positions. Bakhmut's historical journey dates back to ancient times, witnessing the influence of the Scythians, Sarmatians, and Slavic tribes.

The city's population, estimated to be around 77,500, has likely fluctuated due to factors like migration and the impact of the conflict. Its strategic location near the Russian border holds geopolitical implications, making it a focal point in the regional conflict. While the city lacks major economic or geographic importance, Russia's determination to capture it stems from both political and military considerations. 

The Kremlin seeks a symbolic victory to maintain domestic support and prove the superiority of private armies like Wagner. For Russian commanders, gaining control of Bakhmut could serve as a launching pad for further territorial advancements, threatening larger urban areas of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, due to its strategic importance as a regional transport hub. Controlling the Kharkiv-Rostov and Donetsk-Kiev highways that pass through Bakhmut offers great strategic advantages. The M03 highway is a major Ukrainian international road linking Kyiv to Dovzhansky on the Russian border. It would provide control over vital highways and serve as a launching pad for further advances towards Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. 

Bakhmut, located just west of the M03 highway, serves as a crucial supply route for Ukrainian troops. To realize the goal of "liberating the Donbas" and make further advancements into Ukraine, it is imperative for Russia to seize control of Bakhmut. The capture would disrupt Ukrainian logistics and enable proximity for artillery strikes. Tragically, Russian forces, through their invasion, have systematically demolished significant cultural sites in Bakhmut, like the fire-bombing of Palace of Culture. This deliberate destruction will undoubtedly hinder Ukraine's recovery efforts in the post-war era. The ongoing battle has inflicted heavy casualties on both sides, with Ukraine utilizing the opportunity to weaken the Russian military. By defending Bakhmut, Ukraine not only aims to grind down Russian forces but also ties up Russian troops that could be deployed elsewhere. Like Russia, Ukraine has also given Bakhmut political significance, symbolizing resistance and independence. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has made the city an emblem of resistance. When he visited Washington in December, he called it "the fortress of our morale" and gave a Bakhmut flag to the US Congress. He said, "The fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom." 

Overall, Bakhmut has become a symbol of heroic resistance for Ukraine, as 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.

Objectives of Ukraine in Bakhmut
First, the strategic and economic significance. The city is in Donetsk, part of the majority Russian-speaking industrialized Donbas region. It has a strategic road leading to Lysychansk, which is logistically advantageous to the Ukrainian troops. It is an open point to move to the bigger cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, rich in mining reserves and equipment. In March 2023, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that he feared Russian forces would have an “open road” if they took Bakhmut and that it was a tactical decision to strengthen the fight. Sloviansk is connected to Kyiv and Kharkiv through Highway M03, which runs close to the Russian border. 

The economic significance of the city lies in the fact that it is an industrial region rich in salt and gypsum mining reserves and a massive winery. Therefore, the loss of the city also meant economic ramifications for Ukraine.

Second, a battle to weaken the Russian army. For Kyiv, a firm fight in Bakhmut meant wasting the Russian troops from advancing deeper into eastern Ukraine, as the city is an open point to any future combat in Donetsk. According to Zelenskyy’s aide Mykhailo Podolyak, Ukraine was fighting in Bakhmut because the battle debilitated Russia’s best units and degraded them ahead of a strong counter-offensive. For Kyiv, the prolonged fighting in the city could prevent Moscow from conducting operations elsewhere. It also bought time for Ukraine to amass more ammunition and weapons from its Western allies for launching a strong counter-offensive.

Objectives of Russia in Bakhmut
First, a much-needed victory for Moscow. Initially, for Russia, Bakhmut offered a way to encircle the Ukrainian troops in the regions nearby such as Kramatorsk and Slovyansk in the summer of 2022. Russian troops attacking Popasana in May 2022 to capture Bakhmut qualifies Russian interests. Russia had several setbacks in the North and also lost previously captured territories. While the Ukrainian troops’ resistance in defending the Eastern city intensified, Russia saw a conquest in Bakhmut would provide morale to its soldiers. For Kyiv, “Bakhmut stands” became a war cry, and the interests turned out to be political. Moscow’s interests turned out to be the same.  Intense war has destroyed most of the infrastructure and 90 per cent of the population have fled. Despite the devastating loss of soldiers on both sides, for Russia, acquiring Bakhmut became more of a symbol of Russia’s supposed liberation of the region. Also, Moscow capturing Bakhmut will be a significant development for the Russian troops.

Second, Bakhmut an entry to strengthen its military base in Donbas. Beginning in August 2022, Moscow’s aim expanded to capture the whole of the Donbas region. Bakhmut’s roads are used by Ukrainian troops for replenishment purposes and to key regions such as Donetsk and Luhansk. Hence, Russia's sole focus was on Bakhmut and it intensified the engagement. Bakhmut’s immediate populated neighbourhood cities such as Slovianska and Kramatorsk have been subjected to several missile attacks. Bakhmut’s strategic positioning offers Moscow, easier access to key places in Ukraine. Bakhmut’s capture by Russia also provides a base that the Russian troops can utilise for replenishment.
Third, Wagner Group’s leader’s aspirations for a political edge. Along with the Russian troops, the Wagner Group played a crucial role in the capture of Bakhmut. Wagner Group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin aims of extending his political influence as a major objective for his engagement in the war. Prigozhin commented that he will capture the city and accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu of implementing poor manoeuvring tactics. Prigozhin despite saying that he will withdraw his troops several times, captured Bhakmut, giving himself a political edge.

The Course of the Battle 
Initial attacks
In May 2022, the first report on Bakhmut was by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry informing that the Russian troops tried to capture Bakhmut through Popasna which would risk putting the whole of Luhansk under Russian control. In June Bakhmut was subjected to shelling and it continued in July as the Russian troops entered Bakhmut. The focus was on capturing the highway that connects Luhansk and Donetsk.  

Prolonged fight
On 05 October, UAF launched more than 10 airstrikes targeting Russia’s ammunition and weapon stocks moving from defending Bakhmut to offensive strategies. In November 2022, the Ukrainian Ground Forces resisted Russian offensives as they tried to cut the movement of the Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian forces attacked Russian positions at ground zero reported the Wagner Group. On 29 November, the Ukrainian forces reported a reduction in the intensity of attacks by the Russians as they had not had any significant gains. The Wagner group along with the Russian group had the north and northeast of Bakhmut under control. In December 2022, the industrial area in the north and the east of Bakhmut was also under their control. In mid-January 2023, Ukrainian forces deterred Russian attacks in Bakhmut resulting in the death of around 40,000 Wagner Group mercenaries in both Bakhmut and Soledar.   

Encirclement
On 03 February, Zelenskyy said that Ukraine will continue to fight and called Bakhmut “our fortress.” The situation worsened in Bakhmut for Ukrainian troops as Russian attacks intensified on their main remaining supply route Highway M06. On 24 February, in the northern part of Bakhmut, the capture of Berkhovka forced Ukrainian troops to retreat from Stupky. On 25 February, Progozhin claimed the fall of Yahdine in eastern Bakhmut. In March, the Wagner group started advancing deeper in the east and south. On 08 March, Prigozhin claimed taking control of eastern Bakhmut and the Ukrainians were pushed to the western bank of the Bakhmuta River. On the same day, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg cautioned that Bakhmut might fall but it would not decide the larger outcome of the war. On 17 March, the UK Defence Ministry remarked that Russian forces made substantial progress and gained west of the Bakhmuta River making it the new front line.

The fall
During April, Russians aimed to capture the last fortified area in the west of Bakhmut and they advanced significantly in the north, the south and east of the city. On 02 April, Prigozhin claimed that “Bakhmut was fully captured,” and hoisted the Russian flag over the city’s administration building. Ukrainian military denied all claims of the supposed fall of Bakhmut. On 19 April, leaked Pentagon documents confirmed the Russian encirclement of Bakhmut except for the west, the only supply route for UAF. In early May, Prigozhin repeatedly threatened to withdraw from Bakhmut due to inadequate support from Russia. Two days later, he retracted by saying that Russia promised him the ammunition. On 18 May, the Wagner group gained control over three remaining fortified areas in the west. On 21 May, Prigozhin claimed that the city was fully under Wagner’s control. The same day, Russia’s Defence Ministry announced that “the liberation of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut) has been completed.

What Next?
First, preparations for Ukraine’s counter offensive. Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy is meeting world leaders to supply weapons, equipment and other supplies to prepare for its counter offensive against Russia. The assurance of Denmark and the Netherlands to Ukraine regarding the training of Ukrainian pilots on F-16 may lead to the delivery of the American aircrafts. For Ukraine, it is important as its leaders know about the Russian Air Force’s capability. Ukraine's membership requests into NATO and EU, if approved, would change the way in which the members of the alliances would look at the war. This is what Ukraine wants too. When some of the countries advocate for dialogues and peaceful resolutions to end conflict, neither Ukraine nor Russia see that they would be in favour of each other.

Second, next phase of the war. Russia must defend the towns and villages inside the Russian territory from the attacks by pro-Ukrainian groups. The Russian forces who are in control of the Bakhmut are more likely to have a defensive approach. The satellite images show sophisticated primary and secondary trenches and minefields dug by Russian forces to repel the Ukrainian advances in the south. They have built fortifications and stretched its forces to get back the lost northern and southern flanks. The Wagner group is not designed for defence. Their withdrawal from Bakhmut and the tensions between Prigozhin and the Russian leadership can be utilised by the Ukrainians for their advancement. Ukraine is aware of Russia’s larger Air Force that could easily thwart the advancements of the Ukrainians Forces into Bakhmut. This should be read together with the Netherlands and Denmark’s assurance for training the Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 that would eventually lead to the delivery of the American fighter jets to Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelensky, seeking aid in terms of weapons, ammunition and equipment, emphasizes that Ukraine is preparing for a counter offensive operation

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