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The Strategic and Symbolic Importance of Bakhmut (Ukraine)

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

By Petyo Rakov


The battlefield can be viewed as a strategically important war theatre or an overcommitted waste of “waves of living meat” towards the now “burnt ruins”. This is business as usual in the town of Bakhmut in Eastern Ukraine. Analysts have compared the bloody battle with the historic tragedies of Verdun and Isonzo that occurred during WWI. However, said analysts have not yet reached a consensus on whether such human ‘investments’ are justified. Why are both the Kremlin and Kyiv continuing to wage fierce war in this remote town with negligible logistic and economic relevance?


© DW


Overview of the Battle of Bakhmut


The eastern town of Bakhmut is situated in the northern part of the separatist Donetsk Oblast. Its pre-war population was approximately 70,000 people. However, prolonged fighting since August 2022 reduced this number to less than 5,000 and, according to local authorities, 60 per cent of Bakhmut is already destroyed.


The Russian offensive is spearheaded by the Wagner Group, a private paramilitary organization, founded by the FBI wanted Soviet convict and oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin. Roughly 80 per cent of Wagner’s 50,000 troops are convicts.


In addition, Russian troops include units of poorly-trained mobilized men, dwindling regular forces, including paratroopers deployed from the Pacific coast, and Cossack volunteers. Their poor training, as quoted by independent observers, is among the main reasons for the high death toll, turning Bakhmut into a ‘meat grinder’ for Russia's forces.


Ukrainian and Russian casualties figures are deemed unreliable since they tend to be manipulated. Western sources, although less biased in theory, should also be taken with caution due to the difficulty of gathering accurate up-to-date information.


Western intelligence agencies estimate that at least between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops are killed or wounded in the battle for Bakhmut. Depending on the source, the figures for Ukrainian casualties vary greatly. That being said, military intelligence from NATO estimates that Russia is losing at least five soldiers for every Ukrainian defendant killed.


Lastly, said agencies are sceptical about the importance that both belligerents attribute to Bakhmut. Regardless, most experts tend to agree Bakhmut is of pivotal symbolic importance for both sides. This prompts the question of whether or not a further escalation of hostilities in Bakhmut is justifiable.


What Would Victory in Bakhmut Mean for the Kremlin


The 2022 “special military operation” showcased to the world that the Russian army struggles with basic operations. The expected decisive victory following the initial offensives in Kharkiv, Kherson, Kyiv, Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, and other cities no longer seems plausible.


Additionally, various shortcomings of the military were exposed, such as disrupted logistics, inaccurate intelligence, growing conflict between the Russian Ministry of Defense and the Wagner Group, and outdated equipment.


This, coupled with a halted frontline and one year of international sanctions, is decreasing the morale of the troops and their confidence in the state. Thus, Bakhmut falling would provide the Kremlin with the first “major” victory in months that could compensate for suffered military setbacks.


However, this ‘dedication’ towards continuous land grabs regardless of the losses is criticized by many, such as Phillips P. O’Brien, professor at the University of St Andrews, who noted that “[these] Russian strategic aims are bleeding the Russian army greatly.”


The 2022 “special military operation”, whose casus bellis are the demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine, reaffirms that the geographic location of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk Oblast of the Donbas region, amplifies its symbolic importance for the Kremlin.


On 30 September 2022, Vladimir Putin announced the annexation of the occupied oblasts of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhnia, following a series of condemned sham referendums. Hence, capturing Bakhmut is essential for taking control of the entire Donbas region that the Kremlin considers Russian.


Territorial Status Bakhmut on 22 March © 2023 Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project


The Strategic Importance of Bakhmut for Kyiv


On 6 March 2023, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Ukrainian generals vowed to continue reinforcing the defences of the “fortress Bakhmut”, even though according to Ralph Thiele, a retired German colonel, Ukraine is less likely to win the battle.


The commitments of Ukrainian statesmen showcase both the strategic and symbolic importance of Bakhmut for Kyiv, albeit potentially overvalued.


On the one hand, Marina Miron, a research fellow at King’s College London, argues that if Bakhmut falls, Russia will gain control over important roads, which will make the defence of Ukraine’s interior much tougher.


Specifically, the town’s fall would give Russian forces a clear path toward the cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. The conquest of both is necessary if the Kremlin is to achieve its goal of ‘liberating’ the Donbas.


On the other hand, some defence analysts, like Michael Kofman, state that the defence of Bakhmut is reaching a point of diminishing returns. This means that even though Bakhmut is expending enormous amounts of Russian manpower and ammunition, it could also impede the success of a major counter-offensive that Ukraine should execute during the spring of 2023.


However, the main argument for Kyiv’s involvement in Bakhmut is the continuous killing of close to 30,000 Russian troops, which severely weakens future campaigns.


Why is Bakhmut Symbolically Important for Kyiv?


For some observers, Bakhmut's symbolic importance outweighs its strategic importance. For example, Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian at Bremen University, believes that its loss will have a negligible consequence for the war. For Ukraine, Bakhmut has become a symbol of heroic resistance.


Hence, the loss of Bakhmut could psychologically undermine the morale of the Ukrainian troops, and lead to Western partners losing confidence in the capabilities of the Ukrainian army.


De facto, Ukraine is compelled to deliver successes as a justification for the huge amount of foreign aid. To put this claim into perspective, the United States alone has committed more than 24.9 billion dollars (23.4 billion euros) according to the US Department of Defense. This argument intertwines the strategic and symbolic impact of Bakhmut.


Concluding Remarks


Currently, the Wagner Group is in control of the eastern outskirt of Bakhmut, while Ukrainian forces are holding on to the western part of town. Moreover, around Bakhmut, the Russian forces are trying to encircle it from the north, south, and east. The Russian armed forces are also heavily bombarding the two remaining Ukrainian-controlled roads that connect Bakhmut with the rest of Ukraine.


In the long run, Russia seems to be more likely to capture Bakhmut, albeit at an unreasonably high loss of human lives. This could, therefore, mean that Ukraine managed the war effort at Bakhmut the most efficiently by neutralising as many Russian soldiers as possible while minimising their own losses.



Sources: BBC, DW, Euronews, The Guardian, UN Press, US Department of Defense, ISW Institute


Written by Petyo Rakov

March 2023



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