Kyiv, Ukraine – “Burnt Ruins.”
So said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in December during his short visit to Bakhmut, a largely destroyed and depopulated city in the southeast that has become the epicenter of the war between Russia and Ukraine.
The battle for Bakhmut is one of the bloodiest and longest in the conflict entering its second year.
According to reports, hundreds of soldiers on both sides have been killed in and around the city every day since August, when the fighting intensified.
Not even the dry legal language of Ukraine’s official reports can hide the colossal scale of the hostilities, involving Russian airstrikes, artillery and mortar fire, and dozens of daily attacks by ground forces.
Russia “continues its attempted attack on Bakhmut and surrounding towns” as it shelled more than a dozen locations and Ukrainian forces repelled nearly 100 attacks on Sunday alone, the general staff reported on Monday.
Bakhmut’s pre-war population was 70,000.
The city is part of a larger conurbation that includes the town of Soledar, northeast of Bakhmut.
Soledar was seized two months ago after Russia’s Wagner Private Army sacrificed tens of thousands of newly recruited and mostly untrained fighters.
“Today, fighting in Donbas is clinging to conurbations,” Kiev analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.
The Bakhmut-Soledar conurbation is the key to capturing other strategically important and heavily fortified cities and towns of Donbas – Chasiv Yar, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
In recent weeks, however, Moscow overestimated its capabilities and, according to Ukraine’s top military expert, tried to advance in five directions at once along the frontline that stretched some 1,200 km.
“Their efforts are spread too thin,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, told Al Jazeera.
Russians are desperately trying to capture the towns of Kreminna, which is 75 km (46 mi) north of Bakhmut, and Vuhledar, 150 km (93 mi) south of it.
But Kiev’s forces just need to hang on for a few more weeks as they expect the arrival of advanced Western weapons, including the advanced Leopard tanks designed to fight and destroy Soviet-era armored vehicles, and additional Ukrainian troops that are trained to use these weapons. said.
“And after we stop their advance and form our strategic reserves – taking into account these weapons and trained military units – we can talk about launching a counter-offensive,” Romanenko said.
However, if Ukraine chooses to withdraw its troops from nearly encircled Bakhmut, the decision will be far from catastrophic.
The city remains important as the center of the Ukrainian army’s secondary line of defense in Donbas, said Nikolay Mitrokhin, a historian at the University of Bremen in Germany.
“But after the loss of Soledar and a virtual encirclement of Bakhmut from three-and-a-half of the four sides, the significance diminished significantly,” he told Al Jazeera.
“So its loss will reflect insignificantly on the war,” he said.
However, it means Russian forces will not encounter serious obstacles before storming Ukraine’s third line of defense, the Toretsk conurbation which stretches nearly 100 km (62 mi) west of Bakhmut, he said.
But at their current speed — taking into account the resistance of the Ukrainian forces and spring weather with wet and often impassable ground — the Russians will not besiege Chasiv Yar for several weeks, Mitrokhin said.
But they will barely reach the suburbs of Konstantinovka and Kramatorsk, two strategic cities located just 27km and 55km (17 and 35 miles) west of Bakhmut respectively, before mid-May, he said.
“And it will take them a year or more to storm the third line of defense” along the borders of the Donetsk and Luhansk region, which includes hundreds of heavily fortified sites and a labyrinth of trenches and shelters, he said.
Western military leaders also think Ukraine’s withdrawal from Bakhmut will not change the odds of the war.
“I think it’s more of a symbolic value than a strategic and operational value,” US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Monday. “The fall of Bakhmut does not necessarily mean that the Russians have turned the tide of this battle.”
And there is a laundry list of Russian shortcomings and miscalculations that will hinder their progress.
Since the war began in February 2022, the Kremlin has stubbornly relied on the outdated Soviet-era ruse of using massive, indiscriminate artillery fire that lacks precision and destroys almost everything in its path.
As a result, Russian troops now face a dire shortage of ammunition referred to as “grenade starvation”.
Wagner’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin has angrily complained about the shortfall, accusing the Russian defense ministry of deliberately sabotaging his requests to get more.
After Pyrrhic losses in manpower, Wagner no longer relies on recruits — while Russia’s top military evades requests from mobilized men and volunteers to join the group, Prigozhin claimed.
A seasoned separatist strongman showered him with criticism.
“It is of utmost importance to withdraw Prigozhin from the frontline and completely ban him from leading Wagner,” Igor Girkin, a former separatist “defense minister” in Donetsk, wrote on Telegram on Sunday.
He accused Prigozhin of “political ambitions multiplied by psychopathy, organization of war crimes, a penchant for blatant and largely false self-promotion, and the proliferation of putrid criminal customs within the military”.
Prigozhin responded by calling Girkin a “fountain of feces”.
Power struggles aside, Russia’s efforts in Bakhmut include a poorly coordinated “motley crew,” Lieutenant General Romanenko said.
It consists of exhausted Wagner units, poorly trained mobilized men, dwindling regular troops, including paratroopers deployed from Russia’s Pacific coast, and Cossack volunteers who initially succeeded in destroying Ukraine’s elite forces.
Today, however, the Cossacks refuse to advance and are forced to fight by the Kadyrovtsy forces loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin ruler of Chechnya, Romanenko said.
Moscow is training up to 200,000 mobilized men and trying to collect enough weapons, uniforms and ammunition for them.
But “they overestimated their powers (before), and now they did it again,” he concluded.