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Explained: Ukraine's fight for Bakhmut

April 4, 2023

The battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut has become the longest and bloodiest of the war, with severe losses on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides. How has the situation developed since the start of the siege?

Russian Wagner Group soldiers guard an area in Bakhmut, Ukraine
Russian Wagner Group soldiers have been guarding parts of Bakhmut during the fightingImage: Valentin Sprinchak/TASS/IMAGO

What has happened so far?

Some 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut before Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. The battle for control over the eastern city erupted in late summer. Since then, Russian forces have besieged Bakhmut, a city under Kiyv's control within the industrial Donbas area.

The battle of Bakhmut, raging for nine months now, has descended into trench warfare. No other city has been under siege for this long in the Ukraine war. Ukraine and Russia have both suffered heavy losses, with thousands of soldiers dead. The front lines, however, have remained largely unchanged. 

In early January, the head of Russia's private mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced the capture of Soledar, a small town near Bakhmut. Some two weeks later, Ukraine confirmed its army had indeed withdrawn from Soledar. That Russian victory allowed its troops to advance further toward Bakhmut.

Bakhmut has seen months of fierce fighting
Bakhmut has seen months of fierce fightingImage: Libkos/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Most recently, Prigozhin claimed in a video that the Russian flag had been raised over a municipal building in Bakhmut and that the most strategically important city in the Donetsk region had been captured from a legal point of view.

Kyiv has rejected the claim as misinformation, and Prigozhin's statement has also not been confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry. The battle for Bakhmut, therefore, rages on.

It is nearly impossible to independently verify claims made by Russia and Ukraine. It is, however, clear that much of Bakhmut has been laid to waste in the months of fighting. Of the city's 70,000 residents before the war, only 3,000 are believed to still be in the city.

How important is Bakhmut to Ukraine?

For nine months, Russian troops have besieged Bakhmut without Ukrainian defenders relinquishing control, which has given the city a great symbolic importance amid the broader war. The Ukrainian counteroffensive, however, has run out of steam since the autumn months. Its last major feat was liberating the western part of the region and retaking the city of Kherson in November.

Inside the trenches and hospitals of Bakhmut

Bakhmut is strategically important due to its location along the E40 highway, which connects Ukraine's second-largest city, Kharkiv, with the Russian city Rostov-on-Don. If Russia were to conquer Bakhmut, this would allow it to move on to Ukrainian cities further west such as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, an important industrial hub and administrative center in the Donetsk region. This, in turn, would bring Russia closer to its goal of conquering the entire Donetsk area.

What could happen next?

So far, neither Russia nor Ukraine seem willing to stop fighting for control over the now largely devastated city. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly said Ukraine will continue to hold Bakhmut.

Yet military analysts have criticized this stance, arguing it could be more sensible to withdraw to a new defensive line. Otherwise, Ukrainian analyst Oleg Zhdanov said, Ukrainian reservists needed for the counteroffensive could be killed.

Military historian Roman Ponomarenko also sees benefits to withdrawing. "If we just give up Bakhmut and withdraw our troops and equipment, nothing bad will happen," he recently told media outlets. "If they [Russia] fully encircle [the city], we will lose men and equipment."

Ralph Thiele, a former staff member in the private office of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, told DW in early March he thought Ukraine's chances of holding Bakhmut were slim. He said Ukrainian forces there are largely encircled and militarily outgunned by Russia.

This article was originally published in German.