Volodymyr Zelensky put it very aptly. “It’s a pity, it’s a tragedy, but for today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,” Ukraine’s president said yesterday.
The brutal battle for this eastern Ukrainian city seems to be almost over for now.
On Saturday, Yevgeny Prigozhin – the shaven head of the notorious Russian mercenary group Wagner – boasted that Bakhmut had been captured.
Flanked by some of his accomplices and peering into the camera, he claimed that Wagner now controlled the city. A day later, Vladimir Putin himself announced that Russia had won the battle of Bakhmut.
Russian troops – together with Wagner’s assassins – have been trying to take the city since last year. It has been the longest battle of the war, and certainly the bloodiest.
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured) claimed his forces are in full control of Bakhmut – which Kiev denies – in video recorded in front of destroyed buildings as explosions are heard in the distance
Russian mercenaries declared victory in the city of Bakhmut
When I was there earlier this year, the city was a smoldering ruin. Buildings were cratered by shells, roads littered with the scars of missiles and drones. Now, says Zelensky, Bakhmut — once home to 75,000 souls — is completely destroyed.
Putin and Prigozhin may be beaming, but they know what a Pyrrhic victory this really is. Even as the city has fallen – and I am reliably told that Ukrainian resistance remains fierce – the battle exposes two truths about this war: the madness, chaos and utter disregard for human life that were at the heart of Putin’s unprovoked invasion ; and the ferocity and growing tactical intelligence of Ukraine’s defenses.
Bakhmut has no real strategic value, but Russia has been sending its men to die there for nearly ten months. Why? For no other reason than that Putin is determined to fulfill his fantastic promise to take the entire Donbas region. This is madness.
But it is a madness that the Ukrainians have exploited. In recent weeks, under the brilliant generalship of their commander, Oleksandr Syrsky, they have recaptured miles of territory.
It was in Bakhmut that Syrsky pioneered what he calls “active defense”: using the city’s resistance to cut down Russian troops, kill as many as possible, and tie up the rest so they cannot be deployed elsewhere.
This has inevitably given the Ukrainians more time to prepare for their upcoming counter-offensive to retake captured territories.
Last night Mr. Zelensky said that Bakhmut now resembles the Japanese city of Hiroshima after it was hit by an atomic bomb in 1945. But he added that the battle was not over. “Bakhmut is not occupied by the Russian Federation as of today,” he insisted.
Smoke rises from buildings in this aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles involving Russian forces in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Wednesday, April 26, 2023
Western officials estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops were killed or wounded in Bakhmut’s “meat grinder.” As one officer told me, “Every Russian we kill here is one less my comrades have to kill elsewhere.”
And that’s not all. Bakhmut has also been helpful in exposing the vicious internal clashes between Prigozhin and the Russian military, exposing the tensions and contradictions at the heart of Putin’s strategy, as it is.
In recent months, Prigozhin has launched a series of obscenity-laden diatribes against Russian army chief Valery Gerasimov and defense minister Sergei Shoigu, accusing them of not supplying enough ammunition for his troops and of serial incompetence. If the power of the Russian army in the city has been exposed as a lie, so has political unity.
In more ways than one, Bakhmut has become the graveyard of Russian ambitions.
Now the Ukrainians are better placed to launch counterattacks in the south and east.
And in Bakhmut they are preparing what the army spokesman calls “the conditions… to push through” [the Russians] back’. Kiev’s troops are hiding in the outskirts, making it nearly impossible for the Russians to properly occupy the city.
Yesterday, Igor Girkin, the former officer of the Russian Federal Security Service – who was key to both the 2014 annexation of Crimea and later the war in Donbas – gave a brutal assessment on his blog. The battle for Bakhmut was unnecessary and victory is hollow, he wrote. Russian troops are now reduced to salvaging an empty propaganda success.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainians are poised to strike in several places, where they are likely to be met by weakened Russian resistance. This is Syrsky’s ‘active defence’ written in large – and of course aided by the fact that much-needed F-16 fighter jets may soon be on their way to Ukraine after last week’s G7 meeting in Japan. The fall of Bakhmut may then seem like a disaster. But in this case may lie the keys to Ukraine’s ultimate triumph.
If a Russian victory looks like this, the Ukrainians might be willing to see more of them.
David Patrikarakos is UnHerd’s foreign correspondent and the author of War in 140 Characters