On March 5, 2023, Ukrainian infantrymen from the 28th Brigade drove to the front line outside of Bakhmut to face Russian soldiers and look at the damage to nearby buildings.
It’s hardly surprising that neither Ukraine nor Russia wants to give up on defending or seizing Bakhmut, an industrial city in Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, after seven months of war over it.
But it’s more likely than ever that Russia is getting the upper hand now since so many people are fighting there nonstop, especially Moscow’s mercenary forces in the Wagner Group.
Russian state news outlet Tass reported on Wednesday that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of Russia’s mercenary forces fighting in Bakhmut (which Russia calls “Artemovsk”), said that Wagner had taken full control of the eastern part.
Ukraine has vowed to keep defending the city and has promised to send in reinforcements even though its forces appear to be vulnerable to encirclement.
Both Russia and Ukraine have sent a lot of troops to either take over or defend Bakhmut. Each side says that it has killed hundreds of the other side’s soldiers every day.
For both sides, there are several reasons to keep fighting until the last end, from the symbolic to the militarily practical, including making amends for these sacrifices with a win in Bakhmut.
The decision to defend Bakhmut, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, sent a powerful psychological and symbolic message to Ukrainian warriors that their defense of the country after a year of fighting mattered.
Military experts and officials have said that even if Bakhmut falls to the Russians, it won’t make a big difference in the war. This makes it hard to see why the fighting should continue in the city, which has about 70,000 people and was known for its salt mines before the war.
Damage in Bakhmut as seen from above on February 27th, 2023. The Russian military appears to be closing in on Donetsk.
Russia has been very open about the fact that seizing Bakhmut is a major military objective since it will allow them to cut off Ukrainian supply routes in the greater Donetsk region. Even though Ukrainian leaders have tried to downplay the impact of Bakhmut’s possible fall on the war effort, the city is an important supply route for Ukrainian forces in the area.
On January 18, 2023, in Bakhmut, Ukraine, Ukrainian military trucks travel along a road outside of the important city. The governor of the Donetsk region, who was picked by Kiev, said that Russia is using “scorched earth” tactics as part of a more aggressive attack in the new year.
Curbing mercenary momentum
Ukraine says that there is still a reason to keep fighting in Bakhmut, even if it means losing some of Russia’s most powerful military forces.
On Monday, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces, told Bakhmut’s defenders that “the enemy threw Wagner’s additional forces into battle” and that Ukrainian forces had “inflicted significant losses on the enemy, destroyed a large amount of equipment forced Wagner’s best assault units into battle, and reduced the enemy’s offensive potential.”
ISW analysts said that the Battle of Bakhmut could “severely weaken the Wagner Group’s strongest forces,” which would leave Russia without some of its best and hardest-to-replace shock troops. Wagner’s founder Priogozhin himself now appears frightened of this possibility, according to defense analysts.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close associate of Vladimir Putin and a Russian tycoon, runs the Wagner mercenary company and many other firms.