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WWI-style trench hell in Bakhmut ‘is the grimest evidence yet of Putin’s desire for destruction’

Russia is believed to be close to taking the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut in one of the most brutal battles of the war so far.

For months, Ukrainian soldiers have valiantly held back endless waves of Vladimir Putin’s expendable troops from trench lines drenched in scenes reminiscent of World War I.

But the pressure is starting to take its toll, with reports on the ground saying that Bakhmut is now surrounded on the north, east and south, leaving only one escape route: a treacherous swamp to the west.

JUSTIN BRONK, a researcher at the Royal United Services Institute in London, says the city has acquired an importance to Russian and Ukrainian commanders that goes beyond its position and size.

Next, it analyzes the importance of the Battle of Bakhmut for both sides of the conflict and for the outcome of the war itself.

He also discusses rumors that the heavy losses suffered by members of the Wagner mercenary company could be part of a deliberate strategy by Putin to eliminate the group as a political threat.

Pictured: A map showing the approximate position of troops around the besieged city of Bakhmut. Russian forces are closing in from the north, east, and south, leaving Ukraine’s defenders with only one route (the west) to escape: through a muddy quagmire. As the Russian forces advance, the window to withdraw is closing, but Ukraine is determined to continue the defense of the symbolic city.

The fierce battle for the town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine continues, despite the steadily worsening tactical situation for the Ukrainian defenders; as both sides reportedly commit reinforcements to bolster their positions.

Russian forces, especially from the Wagner mercenary company, have been conducting assault operations against the city since early August last year, making it one of the longest battles of the war.

This is surprising in many ways, since the city of Bakhmut itself is not especially strategically significant.

If Ukrainian troops are forced to withdraw from the remaining parts of the city they control, they will be able to count on numerous fortified lines of defense between Russian forces and the major cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.

Compared to their positions in the almost surrounded town of Bakhmut, retreating to a defensive line a little further west would certainly be easier for the Ukrainian army from a logistical and casualty reduction point of view.

However, the city has significance for Russian and Ukrainian commanders that goes beyond its position and size.

For Russia, the city has come to be seen as key for two main reasons.

Ukrainian soldiers in a trench under Russian shelling on the front line near the besieged city

Ukrainian soldiers in a trench under Russian shelling on the front line near the besieged city

Most obviously, it offers the chance for a symbolic victory after a disastrous first year of the invasion of Ukraine, something that President Putin and his military and security elite are keen to present to the Russian population.

In mid-January, Russian propaganda channels trumpeted the capture of the smaller outlying town of Soledar, north of Bakhmut, despite its limited strategic value, precisely for the reason that it was one of the first military developments possibly could be sold to the Russian public as good news.

Bakhmut would be a major prize, so for Putin himself it has a symbolic value that exceeds its practical significance.

The other reason why Bakhmut has unusual significance for Russia’s military and political leadership is that the head of Wagner’s mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, heavily committed his forces to capture the city starting in August 2022, specifically as a way to enhance his already considerable power and influence within Russia. the Russian state at the expense of the Russian army.

He has publicly criticized senior Russian military officials, including Chief of Staff General Valery Gerasimov, for their conduct of the war, repeatedly complaining when Russian government statements did not give his forces the credit he believes they deserve for the capture of Soledar.

The Wagner Group recruited tens of thousands of convicts from prisons across Russia, promising that those who survived six months of fighting in Ukraine would be pardoned and released.

Relentless Russian bombardment has reduced Bakhmut to a smoking wasteland with few buildings standing.

Relentless Russian bombardment has reduced Bakhmut to a smoking wasteland with few buildings standing.

It has used these convict soldiers for large-scale infantry attacks with heavy artillery fire to slowly crush the Ukrainian defensive positions around Bakhmut, at the cost of terrible casualties for very slow progress.

Ultimately, however, there is a limited supply of even these poorly trained cannon fodder troops, and in recent months Wagner has had to commit more of his elite, well-trained forces to the fiercest fighting, along with the regular and conscripted Russian military troops.

As brutal trench and house-to-house fighting continues, along with heavy shelling by both sides, Wager is now losing hundreds of his most valuable and experienced personnel.

These losses, combined with the significant shortage of artillery ammunition facing Russian forces as a whole, have led to suggestions that the Russian military is deliberately limiting support for Wager so that his forces are ultimately depleted in grueling combat in Bakhmut.

This would leave the group, and Prigozhin himself, as potentially less of a political threat to the regular Russian military leadership.

On the other hand, a victory at Bakhmut that is demonstrably won by the majority of Wagner’s forces despite seemingly limited Russian military support could have political significance within the Russian system that outweighs the city’s actual importance on the battlefield. .

Ukrainian soldiers (pictured) have been fighting from trenches around the city for months.

Ukrainian soldiers (pictured) have been fighting from trenches around the city for months.

For Ukraine, the strategy since August has been to use the fighting around Bakhmut and Soledar to inflict heavy casualties on the Russian forces while engaging as few of its own reserve mobile units as possible.

By slowly trading terrain and significant numbers of its own soldiers for appalling Russian losses, the battles so far have greatly reduced Russia’s ability to conduct large-scale offensive operations on a broader front.

Despite attacks on Ukrainian positions along the Donbas front since mid-February, especially at Avdiivka, Marinka and Vuhledar, the Russian winter offensive has so far been very costly and has made very little significant progress.

The Russian military simply does not have enough vehicle or infantry crews, even moderately well trained, and is facing a shortage of artillery ammunition.

The fighting around Bakhmut has consumed large amounts of infantry and artillery ammunition since August and thus has contributed significantly to this shortage.

However, as Russian forces have slowly captured Soledar and other small towns on the outskirts of Bakhmut, the remaining positions in the city are becoming increasingly expensive for Ukraine to hold.

The inbound and outbound supply routes are under fire from the Russian positions to the north and south of the remaining roads, with constant infantry attacks being launched from three sides on their remaining defensive positions.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions

Ukrainian soldiers fire a self-propelled howitzer towards Russian positions

By continuing to commit more forces and holding out, Ukraine now risks suffering losses so severe that it undermines its own ability to launch a major new counteroffensive action in the spring.

The decision to do so suggests that Ukrainian commanders still believe that the fighting is wearing down the Russian force more seriously than their own, but it is also possible that it is a misjudgment based on an understandable emotional desire not to withdraw from defended terrain with so much bravery and bravery. at such a price for so many months of struggle.

While time will tell what the ultimate significance of the Battle of Bakhmut is within the larger war, the savage trench warfare and near-complete destruction of what was a normal city in May 2022 are already a potent symbol of the senseless destruction unleashed on Ukraine by Russia. invasion.

For military professionals and politicians, it is also a poignant reminder of why the West has designed its own military to conduct quick-maneuver warfare under the cover of devastating precision firepower from the air.

This kind of air superiority is not essential to fighting modern warfare, but the terrible destruction and casualties from the artillery and trench warfare around Bakhmut is an example of what warfare would be like without it.