‘Exhaust them’: Why Ukraine has fought Russia for every inch of Bakhmut, despite high cost

May 21, 2023, 9:58 AM

FILE - Ukrainian soldiers fire a howitzer D-30 at the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukrai...

FILE - Ukrainian soldiers fire a howitzer D-30 at the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 19, 2023. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday, May 21, 2023 that Russian forces weren't occupying Bakhmut, casting doubt on Moscow's insistence that the eastern Ukrainian city had fallen. The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground in the invasion’s longest battle, and the comments from Ukrainian and Russian officials added confusion to the matter. (Roman Chop via AP, File)

(Roman Chop via AP, File)

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — The nine-month battle for Russian military.

The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, said Bakhmut was not being occupied by Russian forces.

Regardless, the small city has long has more symbolic than strategic value for both sides. The more meaningful gauge of success for Ukrainian forces has been their ability to keep the Russians bogged down. The Ukrainian military has aimed to deplete the resources and morale of Russian troops in the tiny but tactical patch of the 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) front line as Ukraine gears up for a major counteroffensive in the 15-month-old war.

“Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the Commander of Ground Forces for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. “This gives us the opportunity to enter the city in case of a change in the situation. And it will definitely happen.”

About 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, Bakhmut was an important industrial center, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines and home to about 80,000 people before the war, in a country of more than 43 million.

The city, named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, was known for its sparkling wine produced in underground caves. It was popular among tourists for its broad tree-lined avenues, lush parks and stately downtown with imposing late 19th century mansions are all now reduced to a smoldering wasteland.

Fought over so fiercely by Russia and Ukraine in recent months has been the urban area itself, where this week Ukrainian commanders conceded that Moscow controlled more than 90%. But even now, Ukrainian forces are making significant advances near strategic roads through the countryside just outside, chipping away at Russia’s northern and southern flanks by the meter (yard) with the aim of encircling Wagner fighters inside the city.

“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut. They lost part of the heights around the city. The continuing advance of our troops in the suburbs greatly complicates the enemy’s presence,” said Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister. “Our troops have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy.”

Ukrainian military leaders say their months-long resistance has been worth it because it limited Russia’s capabilities elsewhere and allowed for Ukrainian advances.

“The main idea is to exhaust them, then to attack,” Ukrainian Col. Yevhen Mezhevikin, commander of a specialized group fighting in Bakhmut, said Thursday.

Russia has deployed reinforcements to Bakhmut to replenish lost northern and southern flanks and prevent more Ukrainian breakthroughs, according to Ukrainian officials and other outside observers. Putin badly needs to claim victory in Bakhmut city, where Russian forces have focused their efforts, analysts say, especially after a winter offensive by his forces failed to capture other cities and towns along the front.

Some analysts said that even Ukraine’s tactical gains in the rural area outside urban Bakhmut could be more significant than they seem.

“It was almost like the Ukrainians just took advantage of the fact that, actually, the Russian lines were weak,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews. “The Russian army has suffered such high losses and is so worn out around Bakhmut that … it cannot go forward anymore.”

Ukrainian forces in the outskirts of Bakhmut and in the city bore relentless artillery attacks until a month ago. Then, Ukrainian forces positioned south of the city spotted their chance for a breakthrough after reconnaissance drones showed the the southern Russian flank had gone on the defensive, Col. Mezhevikin said.

After fierce fighting for weeks, Ukrainian units had made their first advance in the vicinity of Bakhmut since it was invaded nine months ago.

In all, nearly 20 square kilometers (eight square miles) of territory was recaptured, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said in an interview last week. Hundreds of meters (yards) more have been regained almost every day since, according to Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine’s Operational Command East.

“Previously we were only holding the lines and didn’t let Russians advance further into our territory. What has happened now is our first advance (since the battle started),” Maliar said.

Victory in Bakhmut does not necessarily bring Russia any closer to capturing the Donetsk region — Putin’s stated aim of the war. Rather, it opens the door to more grinding battles in the direction of Sloviansk or Kostiantynivka, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia Analyst at the U.S.-based think tank Institute for the Study of War.

Satellite imagery released this week shows infrastructure, apartment blocks and iconic buildings reduced to rubble.

In the last week, days before Russia announced that the city had fallen into their control, Ukrainian forces retained only a handful of buildings amid constant Russian bombardment. Outnumbered and outgunned, they described nightmarish days.

Russia’s artillery dominance is so overwhelming, accompanied by continuous human waves of mercenaries, that defensive positions could not be held for long.

“The importance of our mission of staying in Bakhmut lies in distracting a significant enemy force,” said Taras Deiak, a commander of a special unit of a volunteer battalion. “We are paying a high price for this.”

The northern and southern flanks regained by Ukraine are located near two highways that lead to Chasiv Yar, a town 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Bakhmut that serves as a key logistics supply route. The highway is dubbed the “road of life” and is used to transport critical troops and supplies into Bakhmut.

Ukrainian forces passing this road often came under fire from Russians positioned along nearby strategic heights. Armored vehicles and pickup trucks driving toward the city to replenish Ukrainian troops were frequently destroyed.

With the high plains now under Ukrainian control, its forces have more breathing room.

“This will help us design new logistic chains to deliver ammunition in and evacuate the injured or killed boys,” said Deiak, speaking from inside the city on Thursday, two days before Russia claimed it controlled the city. “Now it is easier to deliver supplies, rotate troops, (carry out) evacuations.”


Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.


FILE - Former San Diego Padres Steve Garvey waves to fans before a baseball game against the St. Lo...

Associated Press

Baseball legend Steve Garvey considering US Senate bid in California, energizing beleaguered GOP

LOS ANGELES (AP) — You’d have to go back a generation — to 1988 — to find the last time a Republican candidate won a U.S. Senate race in heavily Democratic California. This time, the party might get an MVP on the ballot. Baseball legend Steve Garvey, who played for the Los Angeles Dodgers and […]

12 hours ago

The Pride Flag flies at the Wisconsin State Capitol, Thursday, June 1, 2023, in Madison, Wis. (AP P...

Associated Press

Governor raises gay pride flag over Wisconsin Capitol in show of support for LGBTQ+ community

MADISON, Wis. (AP) — State workers acting on Democratic Gov. Tony Evers’ orders raised a gay pride flag over the Wisconsin Capitol on Thursday in a sign of support for the LGBTQ+ community as it weathers heightened attacks from conservatives across the country. Workers raised the progress pride flag during a noon ceremony as Evers […]

12 hours ago

Lee Hanson, left, and Ryan Martin of Hanson Maritime Company transfer float bags and other boat sal...

Associated Press

Authorities recover bodies of 2 sisters after vessel found submerged in Alaska; 2 still missing

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — Authorities have recovered the bodies of two sisters onboard a fishing charter boat that was found partially submerged off southeast Alaska amid rough seas. Two others remain missing from the charter, which was taken by two vacationing couples. Alaska State Troopers said they believe the bodies are those of Danielle Agcaoili, […]

12 hours ago

President Joe Biden arrives to the 2023 United States Air Force Academy Graduation Ceremony at Falc...

Associated Press

Biden tells US Air Force Academy graduates their leadership needed in increasingly confusing world

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (AP) — President Joe Biden on Thursday thanked U.S. Air Force Academy graduates for choosing “service over self” but said they now have the “great privilege” of leading in a world that will only get more confusing in the years to come. “Graduates, you made a noble choice to lead a life […]

12 hours ago

Associated Press

Trinidad’s Francis elected next leader of UN General Assembly

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Trinidad and Tobago’s Ambassador Dennis Francis was elected Thursday as the next president of the U.N. General Assembly, the 193-member world body that has been at the forefront of the United Nations’ condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and is a key venue for all countries to tackle urgent issues from […]

12 hours ago

FILE - Roberto Minuta of Prosper, Texas, leaves federal court in Washington, Jan. 23, 2023. Minuta,...

Associated Press

Oath Keeper who guarded Roger Stone before Jan. 6 attack gets more than 4 years in prison

WASHINGTON (AP) — A member of the far-right Oath Keepers extremist group who was part of a security detail for Roger Stone before storming the U.S. Capitol was sentenced on Thursday to more than four years in prison. Roberto Minuta, who was seen on video guarding Stone hours before the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, […]

12 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Internet Washington...

Major Internet Upgrade and Expansion Planned This Year in Washington State

Comcast is investing $280 million this year to offer multi-gigabit Internet speeds to more than four million locations.

Compassion International...

Brock Huard and Friends Rally Around The Fight for First Campaign

Professional athletes are teaming up to prevent infant mortality and empower women at risk in communities facing severe poverty.

Emergency Preparedness...

Prepare for the next disaster at the Emergency Preparedness Conference

Being prepared before the next emergency arrives is key to preserving businesses and organizations of many kinds.

SHIBA volunteer...

Volunteer to help people understand their Medicare options!

If you’re retired or getting ready to retire and looking for new ways to stay active, becoming a SHIBA volunteer could be for you!

safety from crime...

As crime increases, our safety measures must too

It's easy to be accused of fearmongering regarding crime, but Seattle residents might have good reason to be concerned for their safety.

Comcast Ready for Business Fund...

Ilona Lohrey | President and CEO, GSBA

GSBA is closing the disparity gap with Ready for Business Fund

GSBA, Comcast, and other partners are working to address disparities in access to financial resources with the Ready for Business fund.

‘Exhaust them’: Why Ukraine has fought Russia for every inch of Bakhmut, despite high cost