Battle for Bakhmut takes center stage
The six-month battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has been the longest and bloodiest fight of the war so far.
Little known outside Ukraine before the Russian invasion, Bakhmut has become a symbol of the country’s fortitude and perseverance in the face of the Kremlin’s onslaught.
The Ukrainian leadership vowed again this week to keep defending the city, but some observers have warned that holding on to it could be too dangerous and costly.
Here is a look at Bakhmut, the battle and its possible consequences.
What kind of city is Bakhmut?
Bakhmut, which had a prewar population of more than 70,000, was an important center for salt and gypsum mining in the Donetsk region of the country’s industrial heartland known as the Donbas.
The city was also known for its sparkling wine production in historic underground caves. Its broad tree-lined avenues, lush parks and stately downtown with imposing late 19th century buildings made it a popular tourist attraction.
When a separatist rebellion engulfed the Donbas in April 2014, weeks after Moscow’s illegal annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Russia-backed separatists won control of the city but lost it a few months later.
How did the fighting evolve?
Russian troops first attempted to recapture Bakhmut in early August but were pushed back.
The fighting abated in the following months as the Russian military faced Ukrainian counteroffensives in the east and the south, but it resumed at full pace late last year. In January, the Russians captured the salt-mining town of Soledar just a few miles north of Bakhmut and advanced to the city’s suburbs.
The relentless Russian bombardment has reduced Bakhmut to a smoldering wasteland with few buildings still standing. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers have fought ferocious house-to-house battles in the ruins.
Soldiers from Russia’s private Wagner Group contractor have spearheaded the offensive, marching on “the corpses of their own troops” as Ukrainian officials put it. By the end of February, the Russians approached the only highway leading out of the city and targeted it with artillery, forcing Ukrainian defenders to rely increasingly on country roads, which are hard to use before the ground dries.
What officials say
Ukrainian authorities have hailed the city as the invincible “fortress Bakhmut” that has destroyed waves of Russian assailants.
As Russian pincers were closing on the city, a presidential aide warned last week that the military could “strategically pull back” if needed. But on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his top generals decided that the army will keep defending Bakhmut and reinforce its troops there.
For the Kremlin, capturing Bakhmut is essential for achieving its stated goal of taking full control of Donetsk, one of the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that the seizure of Bakhmut would allow Russia to press its offensive deeper into the region.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the rogue millionaire who owns the Wagner Group, charged that his forces were destroying the best Ukrainian units in Bakhmut to prevent them from launching attacks elsewhere.