The Fall of Bakhmut (Sebastian Czub)
Bakhmut has fallen. On May 20, 2023, on the one year anniversary of the fall of Mariupol, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin declared that Bakhmut had officially been captured in its entirety, which plays very neatly into Russian obsession with symbolism, which is used for propaganda purposes – two “mighty” Ukrainian cities taken on the same date.i Prigozhin’s words were reverberated by President Vladimir Putin, who acknowledged that it was Wagner that had taken Bakhmut, with support from federal forces, and praised them for their efforts. However, now as the siege has ended it is crucial to examine what has happened, what it might mean for the future of the war, and whether this apocalyptic battle was worth it in the very end.
The siege of Bakhmut – a summary
The battle for Bakhmut has probably been one of the longest during the ongoing war in Ukraine. The beginning of the battle can be charted as early as summer 2022, when Russian forces broke through he Ukrainians lines around Popasna. On May 22, 2022 As the Ukrainian forces withdrew from the area, the Russians pushed northward to complete the encirclement of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk as well as westward to utilise their momentum and push deeper into Ukraine.ii Over the next 2 months Russians have slowly creeped towards Bakhmut. Some chose to consider 1st August as the official beginning of the battle of Bakhmut, as that is the moment when the assault towards the city increased in strength. This can be supported by the fact that in August Russian forces began fighting for the key town of Soledar just northeast of Bakhmut. Over the course of autumn the fighting intensified and eventually reached the eastern outskirts of the city. Vast amounts of war footage circulated out of Bakhmut, showing brutal nigh apocalyptic warfare akin to the greatest battles of World War I.
As winter began, the fighting slowed, with both sides exhausted and heavily depleted by the attritious trench warfare. Locked in by mud, resulting from heavy rainfall, the Russians and Ukrainians began reinforcing their lines and preparing for the next fight. Which came much sooner than expected by many experts. Winter, usually viewed as a moment of respite from fighting, due to difficult conditions, is a moment of opportunity in Ukraine. This is due to Ukraine’s unique environmental and climate conditions which cause a long period of mud floods in autumn and spring, causing the battlefield to be untraversable and fighting very difficult.
The winter on the other hand, brings cold that freezes the mud and the wet steppes creating perfect conditions for manoeuvrable warfare. The Russians used these conditions to launch a winter offensive in Bakhmut, which started in Soledar. Within two weeks of the start of the assault the town fell, giving Russians access to the northern flank of Bakhmut.iii At the same time Russians also attacked from the south. That aim of the offensive was to encircle the city, or at the very least interdict its supply lines. The stalwart defence mounted by the Ukrainians however, caused the offensive to drag out. The winter offensive lasted until mid-spring. Unable to successfully encircle the city, the Russians opted to assault the city itself. Over several months Russian troops fought block by block to capture the city.
Bakhmut became a symbol of defiance for the Ukrainians, resisting the unending Russian assault. However, after almost 10 months of fighting the city fell. The fall of the city isn’t the end of the battle however as fighting continues in the area of Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces have launched a series of successful counter attacks on the flanks of the city, pushing the Russian forces several kilometres back, and assaulting positions that have been in Russian grip for months. As battle rages on, after its supposed end, it is now crucial to consider its significance and influence on the war.
The strategic importance of Bakhmut
The battle for Bakhmut has been heavily debated, with the majority of discussion centering on the key question: “What was the point?”. The city has been considered by the Russians as the gateway to Donbass. It is positioned on the crossing of several key highways, like the E-40, T0504, or the T0513, and railway junctions. If captured, the city could serve the Russians as a major logistics hub, with outstanding infrastructure already in place. Furthermore, it could serve as, and still might, as a staging area for operation further into Donetsk Oblast, namely Konstantynivka and the Slovyansk-Kramatorsk agglomeration – the largest cities remaining in Ukrainian hands. Thus, if taken swiftly Russia might have been able to capture those cities, and even more importantly threaten the mighty Ukrainian defensive lines erected further south, around Donetsk City in Avdiivka and Marinka. The heroic Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut thwarted Russian plans. The Russians lost their momentum in the Donbass, which they gained with the capture of (almost) the entirety of Luhansk Oblast in spring and summer 2022. Furthermore, as a result of fighting the critical, and much desired by the Russians, infrastructure located within the city has been destroyed. Railway junctions destroyed, highways shattered and key crossing over the Bakhmutka river blown up by retreating Ukrainian forces.
The strategic importance of Bakhmut wasn’t, however, the only reason why the Ukrainians kept fighting for the city. Noticing Russian desperate intent to capture the city, Ukrainians chose to change the city into a meat grinder for Russian forces. The objective of the Ukrainian defenders wasn’t to win, it was to make the Russians pay for every metre with blood. The Ukrainian command chose to use Bakhmut to bleed Russian forces, lose their men, lose their equipment, and lose their momentum, while at the same time denying them their prize – Bakhmut’s infrastructure. Now after the city has finally been taken by Russians it can be said that Ukrainians achieved their objectives. Bakhmut’s infrastructure is in ruins, unusable without extensive repairs. While the casualty counts vary it can be safely stated that Russian armed forces lost many soldiers, counted in tens of thousands if not more. Wagner PMC, which took the brunt of the fighting, lost a significant portion of their forces, so much that the group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin declared that it will be temporarily withdrawing from combat operations, starting on May 26th.iv And, most importantly, the defensive lines in Donetsk Oblast held and are now stable.
After Bakhmut – consequences of the battle on the frontline
Knowing what happened in Bakhmut, and understanding the objectives of both sides of the struggle it is worthy to consider how this titanic struggle will influence the war in Ukraine. Here the first thing of note is the current situation on the frontlines. With the capture of Bakhmut Russian forces have become much more defensive in posture. Russian troops stationed on the flanks of Bakhmut have been pushed back by several kilometres, and have not attempted to counterattack. At this moment Russians have positioned themselves in highly defensible location in the area, to the south on the high hills around Klischivka, which serves as a supply hub for the Russians, to the north around the E-40 highway and several water obstacles that hinder Ukrainian offensive operations, and in the city itself, which while ruined is still very defensible, fortified, and garrisoned by large quantities of soldiers, including the elite VDV. Similar approaches are noticeable in other areas of the frontline – creation of the 120 kilometres long line of fortifications in Zaporizhia Oblast, defensive operations and counter battery fires in Kherson Oblast, abandoning of offensive operations around Donetsk City, especially around Avdiivka.
It seems that Russian forces have shifted to a defensive stance, most probably due to high casualties, especially in the Bakhmut area, and the threat of the upcoming Ukrainian counteroffensive. For now the Russians will be regrouping, reinforcing and resupplying their forces hoping to bait the Ukrainians into costly attacks against their defences. Here it is possible to notice the importance of Bakhmut once again as now the city acts as a fortress anchoring Russian defences in northern Donetsk Oblast. The Ukrainians will have to siege to break through the Russian lines or try to go around, which would risk exposing their flanks to attack. Thus, Bakhmut even as a costly endeavour might be vital for the Russian war effort in Ukraine.
The taking of Bakhmut thus, could also lead to a reversal of roles with Russia trying to consolidate their gains and Ukraine seeking a way to exploit the temporary lull in Russian offensive operations. As Wagner forces have been heavily spent in the fighting, the Group’s leader Yevgeny Prigozhin stated that his forces will withdraw from the frontlines entirely by 1st June, transitioning the control over captured territories to regular forces.v This will probably lead to a stabilisation effort undertaken by the Russian aiming to fortify the captured city and repair its key infrastructure, while at the same time trying to thwart Ukrainian offensive operations on the flanks. The Ukrainians on the other hand will probably aim to exploit Wagner’s withdrawal and the temporary chaos during to launch offensive operations around Bakhmut. This will most probably target Klishchiivka, located to the city’s south, which acts as a key Russian position and a supply line to Bakhmut. Another target might be the E-40 Bakhmut-Slovyansk highway to the northwest, which would allow Ukrainians to put pressure on Russian positions in western Bakhmut. It is worth noting however, the Prigozhin has announced the “withdrawal” of Wagner from Bakhmut several times, never following up on his declarations. It is possible that this statement is another such misleading gesture aiming to draw out Ukrainian forces to throw themselves at the prepared Russian positions. If so, Bakhmut could continue to be the bloodiest battle of the war.
After Bakhmut – further consequences
Examining the costs of the battle one might notice a not very optimistic trend. As previously stated here, and by several Ukrainian officials the battle for Bakhmut was meant to bleed the Russian forces, deplete their manpower and equipment. While it is certain that the Russians paid a steep price for the city – how does it relate to the price the Ukrainians paid, and to much more manpower Russia still has. According to US intelligence, as presented by National Security Council spokesman John Kirby from December 2022 until May 2023, the Russians suffered 100,000 casualties, with 20,000 dead and 80,000 wounded.vi Half of the killed in action, and presumably half of the wounded, have been suffered by Wagner forces in Bakhmut. Thus, putting the Russian casualty count from Bakhmut at, at the very least 50,000, though when one would include non-Wagner forces this number would rise higher.
The issue is however, that Ukrainian forces also paid a steep price during the battle. Some sources stated that the defenders lost between 100-200 soldiers daily.vii An Associated Press report from a military hospital in Bakhmut seems to show similar estimates. In the report Anatoliy, the chief of the medical service in the area states that his team treats over 60 wounded soldiers a day, almost an entire company of men, and that is excluding personnel that died before reaching the hospital.viii
Furthermore, a video shows a Ukrainian serviceman in Bakhmut, talking about the situation of the city’s defenders. He claims that Ukrainian forces may be losing up to 2 companies a day, with battalions being lost each week during the fight for the city (for reference a company numbers around 100 men, and a battalion 600 men).ix These numbers have been presented in early March 2023, when Ukrainian forces still held the eastern part of the city, and the defenders situation was relatively stable, with established supply lines, and strong fortifications in the city. As the battle progressed however the Ukrainian losses would be sure to rise with their forces hemmed in from three sides by the Russians and their supply lines severed or contested, forced to conduct fighting withdrawals, first across the Bakhmutka river and then from the city centre into the last defence line at the railway tracks in the western districts. However, even if one would take the lower casualty counts as an estimate, then the Ukrainian forces would be losing roughly 3000 men per month in the battle for Bakhmut. In comparison with the casualty count provided by John Kirby, that is roughly 50,000 Russian losses in Bakhmut over 5 months, which translates to 10,000 per month, the casualty ratios would be equal to 3:1 in favour of the Ukrainians (that is roughly 3 Russian casualties for each Ukrainian). Thus, while the battle for Bakhmut bled the Russians it also left its mark on the armed forces of Ukraine.
What can be declared as a phenomenal success for Ukraine during the battle for Bakhmut was their propaganda narrative. The battle for Bakhmut has become a symbol of Ukrainian defiance and will. It serves as an inspiration for the Ukrainian troops that they can take on the Russians despite being outnumbered and outgunned. Furthermore, this act of defiance shows that Ukrainians are prepared to fight until the very end for their freedom and independence from Russian imperialistic ambitions. It also serves as a stark reminder to the Russians themselves that they would bleed heavily for every inch of Ukrainian land and maybe they should reconsider their ambitions. It seems that this was quite effective, as Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin declared that his forces would withdraw from Bakhmut on the 25th of May to recuperate, with rumours being circulated that the more experienced fighters will be withdrawn from Ukraine altogether.
The siege of Bakhmut has been long and bloody. Both sides invested enormous amounts of manpower and resources into this seemingly unending battle. After almost ten months of brutal fighting the city finally fell. The Russians have seized it, as they set out to do, but the price they have paid is exorbitantly high. The Ukrainians have lost the city but they denied the Russians its sought after infrastructure, thwarted their offensive, and have taken their momentum, though also at a very high cost. It seems that the truth is that no one really won the battle for Bakhmut and the fighting will continue to rage on.
Author: Sebastian Czub, analyst at Casimir Pulaski Foundation
i Peter Graff, “Russia says Ukrainian city of Bakhmut captured”, Reuters, May 21, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russias-wagner-claims-bakhmut-kyiv-says-situation-critical-2023-05-20/.
ii Karolina Hird, George Barros, and Mason Clark, “Russia Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 22, 2022”, Press ISW, May 22, 2022, https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-22.
iii James Waterhouse, and George Bowden, “Ukraine war: Conflicting claims over embattled town of Soledar”, BBC News, January 11, 2023, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-64219979.
iv Karolina Hird et al., “Russia Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 22, 2023”, Press ISW, May 22, 2023, https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-22-2023.
v Karolina Hird et al., “Russia Offensive Campaign Assessment, May 22, 2023”, Press ISW, May 22, 2023, https://understandingwar.org/backgrounder/russian-offensive-campaign-assessment-may-22-2023.
vii Isobel Koshiw and Pjotr Sauer, “Ukrainian forces still trying to hold Bakhmut despite heavy casualties“, The Guardian, March 9, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/09/ukraine-bakhmut-heavy-casualties-russia-war.
viii Defense of Ukraine, Twitter, March 3, 2023, https://twitter.com/DefenceU/status/1631542420776300544?cxt=HHwWgMDRpf_Ls6QtAAAA.
ix Michał Nowak, Twitter, March 1, 2023, https://twitter.com/nowakkmichal/status/1631039508719304707?cxt=HHwWhoC8vdTyzqItAAAA.