Why does the battle for Bakhmut matter?
Ukrainian and Russian forces have been fighting over the small town of Bakhmut for months.
Most of its residents have fled and much of the town has been destroyed. Soldiers are fighting in trenches in conditions described as “utter hell” and a “meat grinder”. Fighting has escalated in recent days and thousands are thought to have been killed on either side.
Why is there so much focus on Bakhmut? Here’s what it means.
The war so far
Russia at first sought to invade all of Ukraine but was quickly pushed back to focus on the east. In the second half of last year, Ukraine won back significant territory in the east and Russia suffered enormous personnel losses.
Russia then began 2023 with a new offensive, having conscripted hundreds of thousands of new soldiers. So far, it has not led to any notable gains. With its forces and weapons depleted, military analysts question whether Russia can manage any further attacks.
The town of Bakhmut is in the eastern region of Donetsk, which Russia controls part of and wants to control all of. Capturing Bakhmut could help Russia move onto other parts of Donetsk, but most observers say its strategic value is limited.
Despite this, it has been a major focus of fighting. It’s believed tens of thousands of Russian soldiers and thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have died there.
Many suggest it has “symbolic” value for both sides despite its limited strategic value.
Stakes for Russia
For Russia, the win in Bakhmut would be symbolically important after a long string of failures.
However, victory would be somewhat complicated for the Russian leadership and especially for President Vladimir Putin. That’s because the fighting in Bakhmut has been led by the outspoken military leader Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been a vocal critic of the leadership’s management of the war, even accusing them of refusing to send him enough ammunition.
Stakes for Ukraine
For Ukraine, Bakhmut is viewed as an opportunity to inflict deeper losses on Russian forces while Ukrainian forces prepare to launch their own offensive in the coming months, aided by new Western military equipment.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has frequently used Bakhmut as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance but said Ukraine did not feel the need to defend it “at any price”. A Ukrainian military expert suggested Ukraine viewed the city “not as a fortress, but as a trap” for Russia.