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A Ukrainian city is on the verge of falling to Russia

If Moscow takes Bakhmut, it may be a hollow victory.

One soldier in a camouflage uniform and a face mask holds open the back door of an armored vehicle, as others sit on benches inside it, with supplies stacked around them.
Ukrainian servicemen travel inside an armored vehicle before being deployed to the frontline of Bakhmut, in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, on March 9, 2023.
Ignacio Marin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The costly, attritional battle of Bakhmut may be finally reaching its end, as Russia advances and as Ukraine shows hints of a possible withdrawal.

After seven months, it’s not quite over yet — but there are signs it’s heading that way. Ukraine vowed not to retreat from Bakhmut amid reports that its forces blew up bridges, a possible sign that troops may be planning a controlled pullback after fending off Russia for months. That comes alongside boasts from Yevgeny Prigozhin, the self-proclaimed founder of the Wagner Group, a private mercenary-like force, that his fighters have taken the eastern part of Bakhmut, and have the city “practically” surrounded. Even Ukraine’s backers have suggested that Bakhmut’s long, slow fall may now be here: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday it could happen in “the coming days.”

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US think tank, estimates that about 50 percent of Bakhmut is now under Russian control, although George Barros, geospatial intelligence team lead and Russia analyst at ISW, said that the Ukrainians have enough control to withdraw if they have to. “Retreat doesn’t mean defeat,” he added. According to the UK Ministry of Defense, Ukraine has stabilized its defensive position after Russian advances in the north of the city.

The fight to take Bakhmut rages on, then. If Russia does fully capture Bakhmut — or Ukraine cedes it — it will represent the first of Moscow’s real gains in many months after a series of Russian defeats last summer and fall.

That will be a symbolic win for Russia, one to tout, especially at home. But a Russian takeover of Bakhmut may ultimately prove to be a hollow victory, at best.

Does Bakhmut matter? We don’t really know yet.

Bakhmut has limited strategic value; an eastern city of about 70,000 before the war, it is now a shelled-out wasteland that took Russia about seven months to capture.

Bakhmut exacted an extraordinary toll on Russian manpower and artillery. The battle was a “meat grinder,” with the Kremlin relying heavily on Wagner fighters, many of them prison recruits. These fighters were expendable bodies, sent out in human wave attacks to kill, and be killed. Ukraine has estimated that some 30,000 of Wagner’s 50,000 fighters have deserted, or been wounded or killed in the area around Bakhmut. The brutal combat tactics attrited Ukrainian troops, but it was also a crude substitute for a real fix to Moscow’s military problems.

And this is the persistent challenge for Russia: Even if it gets Bakhmut, it may not be able to capitalize on some of the tactical benefits — access to roads, and the ability to possibly push onward to other cities in the region — because its military still seems to lack adequately trained troops and equipment.

Russia’s anticipated spring offensive has not yielded any massive gains, and Russian troops have faced serious setbacks along the front lines. It took seven months to take Bakhmut; if it takes seven more to take another city or town, all while Russia depletes its ammo and manpower, it does not really add up to a stunning success.

Still, Ukraine has suffered in Bakhmut. Kyiv is burning through ammunition, and has taken significant losses, even if not on the scale of Russian casualties. Few analysts or officials see the Bakhmut battle as decisive in either swinging momentum in the conflict or in influencing the final outcome of the war. That’s prompted some to question why Ukraine continues to expend so much effort, and so many resources, to defend what’s left of the city.

Instead, Ukraine is apparently digging in. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said this week that Ukraine would not retreat, and would reinforce its defenses.

“They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction,” Zelenskyy told CNN. “That’s why our guys are standing there.”

Bakhmut is symbolic for Ukraine; a heroic tale of Kyiv’s resistance amid intense and indiscriminate carnage. But Ukrainian forces also see strategic value in tying Russia up, forcing it to fight for every inch of Bakhmut, as it exhausts its combat and manpower. The battle is depleting both sides, but Ukraine’s bet is that the losses for Moscow are still greater than its own. Ukrainian troops are wearing down Russian fighters so that, even if Moscow raises its flag in Bakhmut, it will come at such such a cost, that Ukraine can exploit that and launch its own counteroffensive.

This is an echo, potentially, to how the war played out last spring and summer. It was an attritional battle in the east, a war of inches, where Russia made small but steady gains in places like Sievierodonetsk. But Ukraine bled out Russia’s military in the fight, and it was able to capitalize on the battered state of Russia’s forces, stage its successful counteroffensive, and retake territory near Kharkiv and Kherson.

“Today, with the arrival of foreign aid and weapons, our country not only continues to hold back the Russian offensive, but also prepares to turn the tide of the war,” said Ukrainian Brigadier General Mykhailo Drapaty.

The bottom line is that, no matter what happens in Bakhmut, this war will grind on. Against the backdrop, Russia unleashed one of its most aggressive bombing campaigns in weeks, using high-precision weapons to target civilian and infrastructure targets.

Both Russia and Ukraine want to deplete the other of manpower, ammunition, and political will. Ukraine is banking on having the edge, again. But whether Kyiv can reprise the success of its 2022 strategy in Bakhmut is still being tested. Bakhmut is on the brink — but it hasn’t fallen yet.

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