The fight to hold Bakhmut

Ukraine country outline.
Ukraine country outline. Illustrated | Gettyimages
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Russia has been surrounding the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. While Russian officials have long held that the potential capture of the city could be a key victory, Ukraine and its American allies have placed less emphasis on Bakhmut's potential fall. Here's everything you need to know: 

What is the situation in Bakhmut?

Located in Ukraine's northeast Donetsk region, Bakhmut has been one of the epicenters of fighting ever since the Russo-Ukrainian war broke out. The city is just over 120 miles from the Russian border, and prior to the war, was home to more than 70,000 people. However, BBC News reports that just over 4,000 civilians remain.

Fighting has been intense in Bakhmut in part due to its close proximity to Russia. Ukraine has been able to hold off the majority of invading Russian forces, but with resources dwindling, the Russian army has been "attacking Bakhmut from three directions in a persistent attempt to encircle Ukrainian troops," The New York Times reports.

The fighting has gradually chipped away at Ukrainian defenses, and the Times notes that "Russian forces have gradually captured surrounding territory, nearly cutting off the city" for the past seven months. Moscow has continually been ramping up efforts to loosen Ukraine's hold on Bakhmut. Reuters notes that thousands of Russian shells have fallen on the city, and despite the best defensive efforts, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said at the end of 2022 that Russia had "actually destroyed Bakhmut" and "turned [it] into burnt ruins."

Reuters also reported that Ukrainian troops have been amassing west of Bakhmut in preparation for a potential retreat. However, the order to abandon the city has yet to come.

Why is Russia so keen to capture the city?

A large part of it is symbolic. The desire to overtake Bakhmut "reflects [Russian President] Vladimir Putin's long-held aim of capturing Ukraine's eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas," Time notes. Ukrainian lawmaker Yehor Cherniev told Time that while Bakhmut may not be a strategically important city for Russia, they will still "try to hold it as long as possible," more as a show of force than anything else.

The fight over Bakhmut has "come to symbolize the grinding war of attrition in Ukraine," The Washington Post reports. The country's ability to hold the city has so far been a source of pride for Ukraine as the war enters its second year, and while the Post concurs that Bakhmut has little strategic value, "the relentless, intensifying fight for control of the city ... has made it a rallying cry and political battleground for both sides."

However, one faction that does see strategic value in taking Bakhmut is the Wagner Group. Described by ABC News as "a private military organization run by an ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin with tens of thousands of fighters," there are an estimated 50,000 combatants from the Wagner Group in Ukraine, according to the White House.

For Wagner Group leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the takeover of Bakhmut "represents a chance to showcase Wagner's abilities — even at enormous human cost — as he jockeys with Russia's military chiefs for influence," the Post notes. This comes despite the often poorly trained Wagner members sustaining heavy casualties against Ukrainian freedom fighters.

What has each side said about the situation?

The Russians have unsurprisingly been eager to raise their flag over Bakhmut, given the symbolic win it would represent. However, Russia also seems to believe that the capture of the city would have a series of ripple effects. Moscow thinks "capturing the city would be a step towards its major objective of seizing the full territory of the surrounding Donbas region," Reuters notes. Putin has long been propagandizing a key victory in Bakhmut, and it would finally give him "some good news from the front," The Associated Press adds.

However, Ukraine and its Western allies have responded with a more muted, and likely more realistic, take on the situation. Even if Bakhmut is captured, it would not represent the death blow that Russia is hoping for, Mick Ryan, a former Australian general, told CNN. "[A Ukrainian retreat] should be treated as a routine tactic rather than a harbinger of disaster," he said.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has led the American government in playing down Russia's advancement on Bakhmut. A Ukrainian withdrawal would not "[change] the tide of this fight," Austin told reporters, per The Financial TimesHe added that if this is the decision that Ukrainian forces eventually come to, he "would not view that as an operational or strategic setback."

What if Russia captures Bakhmut?

Given that victory would be largely symbolic for Putin, the tide of the war probably would not change. But Russia would limp away from a win. Ukrainians "have used Bakhmut to inflict massive losses on the attacking force," CNN notes, with some estimates putting the Ukrainian-to-Russian death toll at a ratio of 7:1. Even as they advance, Russia may still not have an easy time finalizing their hold over the city, and Zelensky was told by his top generals that rather than retreat, they were both "in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening positions in Bakhmut," Reuters says.

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