Bakhmut: Why Russia and Ukraine are battling so hard for one small city

MOSCOW – Over 90 per cent of its residents have fled, much of it lies in ruins, tens of thousands have been killed, and its strategic importance has been played down by the Pentagon and Nato chiefs. Yet Russia and Ukraine are still battling for the small city of Bakhmut.

After eight months of trench warfare, Ukrainian forces are surrounded on three sides, Kyiv’s supply lines are fraying, and Moscow says it is in control of just over two thirds of Bakhmut, including part of the centre.

Still, Ukraine has pledged to keep defending the city and is engaged in fierce street fighting in western districts even as both sides take heavy casualties.

Some leading Western military analysts have suggested it might make sense for Ukrainian forces to fall back to a new fortified defensive line, but Kyiv has clung on.

Mr Volodymr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, has portrayed “Fortress Bakhmut” as a symbol of defiance which is bleeding the Russian military dry, though he did say on Wednesday that his forces could withdraw if they risked being encircled.

For Moscow, the fall of the city it calls by its Soviet-era name of Artyomovsk, would be its first major capture since mid-2022 and a boost in its wider war against Ukraine. It also claims to be decimating Ukrainian forces.

What is Bakhmut?

The city is in Ukraine’s Donetsk, part of the largely Russian-speaking industrialised Donbas region which Moscow wants to annex with its self-declared “special military operation.”

It had a pre-war population of 70,000-80,000, but Deputy Ukrainian Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said last month that fewer than 4,000 civilians, including 38 children, were thought to remain. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said that those left are eking out an existence in underground shelters under heavy shelling.

Reminiscent of World War I, the battle for Bakhmut has been fought from trenches with relentless artillery and rocket strikes across a heavily-mined battlefield described as a “meat grinder” by commanders on both sides. It has also involved house-to-house fighting.

The city has witnessed slaughter before: during World War II, occupying Nazi troops herded 3,000 Jews into a nearby mine shaft and bricked it up, suffocating them.

Killing zone?

Images of battlefields strewn with corpses from both sides have surfaced on social media, and Mr Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of Russia’s Wagner mercenary force which is doing much of the fighting, has published a picture of his own dead fighters.

Casualty figures are classified, but US officials estimate that tens of thousands of Russian soldiers – many of them convicts recruited by Wagner – have been killed. A Russian-installed official said on Thursday that Moscow had killed 15,000-20,000 Ukrainian troops.

Reuters is unable to verify battlefield casualty figures.

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