Battle Of Bakhmut – Why Is The City So Important For Russia And Ukraine?

Ukrainian flags
Mike Wong

The Battle of Bakhmut, which began on 1st August 2022, was a military battle between the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation. The battle was started when Russian troops attempted to seize the small town of Bakhmut, but failed. Many news organisations, think tanks and commentators (mostly military) from both the West, Ukraine, and Russia have been highlighting the significance the city, so why is Bakhmut, a small city with a pre-war population of around 70,000 citizens, so important? Mike Wong discusses. 

At first, Bakhmut wasn’t considered strategically significant, not until the Russians captured the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, two key strategic cities in the Luhansk Oblast. The city also became iconic and symbolic after President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington and gave a speech in which he mentioned the city.  Zelensky himself compared it to the Battle of the Bulge, the last major offensive launched by Nazi Germany to attack the Allied forces on the Western front, which only ended in disaster and with huge casualties.

Both Russian and Ukrainian leadership have put a lot of political capital towards the city of Bakhmut

Some have pointed out that Bakhmut’s strategic importance and location is why both Ukrainian and Russian troops have directed a lot of attention to Bakhmut . The city is located on the key supply routes and communications site between the two largest Ukrainian cities in the Donetsk Oblast; Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. The former is the de-facto capital of the Donetsk Oblast after Separatists from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) captured it briefly in 2014.

Losing Bakhmut to Russian forces would effectively destroy the large number of Ukrainian troops stationed there, which protect the city from Russian capture, and would open the gateway to a rapid Russian capture of the entire Donetsk Oblast, leaving Ukraine with less troops to defend against the larger Russian army. This would make it nearly impossible to fully re-capture the Russian occupied territories in Ukraine.

Lastly, both Russian and Ukrainian leadership have put a lot of political capital towards the city of Bakhmut, most worryingly some of the 50,000 strong Russian Mercenary force, the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group has become well-known for its extreme brutality.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group and nicknamed ‘Putin’s chef’ due to his catering for the Kremlin, went to Bakhmut to gain credibility, and in a bid to demonstrate his mercenaries as more powerful than the ill-equipped regular Russian army, who failed to capture Kiev.

[It] is reported that both Russia and Ukraine acknowledged heavy losses

It is reported there is a power struggle within Russia, with the Russian Defence Ministry locked in a conflict against the Kadyrovites and Wagner Mercenaries. Ukraine on the other hand, put the rallying cry “Hold Bakhmut” as a symbol of national unity and support to fight against Russia. Thus losing Bakhmut could result in a rapid fall of morale, and in a way, portray Zelensky as having betrayed and ignored the promise of “Holding Bakhmut” until the very end.

Ukraine is believed to have concentrated more than 25,000 troops near to Bakhmut. It is reported that both Russia and Ukraine have acknowledged heavy losses, though have refused to give an exact number of how many troops are dying on the frontlines, especially in Bakhmut due to fears of eroding public support.

However, it remains to be seen whether Ukraine can hold onto the city of Bakhmut. Soledar, a Ukrainian strategic salt mine city, which is only 15km away from Bakhmut, was captured by Russian Wagner mercenaries, and it appears the plan is to force Bakhmut into a siege, similar to the Ukrainian city of Mariupol in the early days of the invasion. Finally, it also remains to be seen whether Ukrainian troops and the 10,000 civilians who wanted to stay will be able to survive the ensuing Russian strikes on Bakhmut, and whether the arrival of more advanced weaponry to Ukraine will change the outcome in Bakhmut.

Mike Wong

Featured image courtesy of Markus Spiske via Pexels. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image. 

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