What Russia’s claim to capture Bakhmut means for Ukraine’s war
Russia’s claim of victory in Bakhmut suggests that the brutal urban combat that marked the deadliest battle of its war in Ukraine may be over. But what follows is far from clear.
As Moscow trumpets a ‘mission accomplished’ moment, Ukraine – though it insists Bakhmut has not completely fallen – sees an opening to seize the initiative from the periphery if Russian forces no longer push within the city limits.
Russia’s capture of Bakhmut would be a mighty symbolic success for Moscow, the first Ukrainian city it captured since Lysychansk last summer, and a setback for Kiev, which has spent precious ammunition and sent some of its most capable forces to try to thwart Russia’s devastating months. assault.
But the city is in ruins, and controlling it would not necessarily help Moscow achieve its larger goal – to conquer the entire eastern region of Donbass – now that Ukrainian troops have exhausted Russian forces and breached their defenses in some areas to the north. and south of the city.
These gains will allow Ukrainian troops to continue raining artillery on Russian forces trying to hold Bakhmut, according to Ukrainian officials. And military analysts say that if Moscow continues to send reinforcements to defend the city, it could weaken Russian forces’ ability to repel a wider counteroffensive that Ukraine says is about to begin.
A UK Defense Intelligence Assessment On Saturday, Moscow said it had redeployed “up to several battalions to reinforce” Bakhmut, calling it a “notable commitment” for Russia’s heavily stretched combat forces in Ukraine.
Among the questions for Russia are the intentions of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner mercenary company that led the urban fighting, who declared victory in Bakhmut on Saturday and said his soldiers would withdraw from the city of here Thursday. Military analysts said it was unclear whether Mr Prigozhin could withdraw so abruptly along a hotly contested front line without dire consequences for Russians in the city.
It was also unclear whether the Russian reinforcements deployed towards Bakhmut would rotate Wagner’s troops or bolster Russia’s faltering defenses on the outskirts of the city.
In recent days, Russian forces fighting their way west through the city have fought through a final district of high-rise buildings, reaching a stretch of garages, farms and open fields to the west. . The Ukrainian army said on Sunday that it still holds several buildings in this area.
But even as Kyiv’s forces retreated from the block-by-block fighting, they brought in reinforcements to consolidate rear positions, securing roads and supply lines west of Bakhmut. And they focused on attacking Russian positions north and south of the city. A battle on May 6 broke through the Russian lines south of the village of Ivanivske and forced the Russian soldiers into a disorganized retreat.
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had recently recaptured high ground on the outskirts of the city and that these advances would “really complicate the enemy’s presence in Bakhmut”.
If Ukrainian forces can continue their counterattack, it would put Russia on the defensive along almost the entire front line, which stretches for hundreds of kilometres. For months, Bakhmut was among the few places where Russia was gaining ground.
Ukrainian commanders say their goal from the start in Bakhmut was to corner the Russian army in protracted combat, kill as many of its soldiers as possible and buy time for Ukraine to prepare and rearm – with Western weapons – for a wider counteroffensive.
A Russian capture of Bakhmut “will mean nothing, actually,” predicted Colonel Serhiy Hrabsky, war commentator for Ukrainian media. “The Russians have exhausted their offensive capabilities and that is why they are so desperately declaring that they have captured Bakhmut.”
Speaking to reporters at the Group of 7 summit in Japan on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke of the strategic significance of the battle to deplete the Russian military. All that was left in the ruined city, he said, were “lots of dead Russians”.