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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Blood Of Bakhmut: Why Both Sides Are Ready To Die For A Deserted City In Donbas

Fighting has been fierce for the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine. What is the price of a victory that is, above all, symbolic?

Photo of Ukrainian soldiers prepare a tank for combat in the fronlines of Bakhmut

Ukrainian soldiers prepare a tank for combat in the fronlines of Bakhmut

Pierre Haski

-Analysis-

PARIS — The name of Bakhmut will go down in history as one the fiercest, most contested battles in the Ukraine war. Fighting has been raging for weeks, in this city of the Donetsk region, in eastern Ukraine's Donbas. The toll of victims is rising considerably.

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What’s at stake today is less strategic than symbolic — which is not a trifling thing in this type of conflict. There is something about Bakhmut that’s reminiscent of World War I, where men die to conquer a house or a neighborhood only to lose it again the next day. The weapons, of course, differ: 21st-century drones, geo-location, missiles.


Ukraine had so far been reluctant to take the risk of losing too many men to defend positions that were not deemed essential. That strategy has changed with Bakhmut, which became a symbol of the Ukrainian army's ability to hold out, and therefore to one day emerge victorious against Russia. A defeat at Bakhmut would reflect negatively, just as Ukraine receives promises of new arms shipments from the West.

The Wagner Group threat 

Facing the Ukrainian army are the men from the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin’s "private" army — and a real game-changer.

Prigozhin — a.k.a. "Putin's chef", a moniker that dates back to their shared past in St. Petersburg — created the Wagner group, best known for its mercenary operations in Africa, notably in Mali where it supplanted French forces. The paramilitary group is now fully engaged in the Ukraine war, with thousands of men directly recruited from Russian prisons — under the promise of a clean slate after six months on the front, that is, if they are still alive.

Prigozhin has made it a personal matter. In recent days, he has staged himself in videos shot not far from Bakhmut, encouraging his men. His own, indirect way of criticizing the Russian army for its inefficiency. But to really show his strength, Prigozhin must win Bakhmut — a victory that would in turn cast a shadow on the regular Russian army.

The war, then, spills beyond the Ukrainian battlefield, highlighting the games of power and influence in Moscow.

A Ukrainian drone operator watches as artillery strikes Russian positions

Madeleine Kelly/SOPA/Zuma

A symbol of determination

Over the last couple of days, Wagner troops tried to advance on Soledar, near Bakhmut. Fighting was fierce and, according to Kyiv, the Russians had to give up after sustaining heavy losses.

All this only reinforces the feeling that there is no end in sight for this war.

The Ukrainians do not communicate on their own losses — but they are significant too, and have led Kyiv to send reinforcements back to Bakhmut to help resist the Russian assaults.

The battle for Bakhmut, a city deserted by 90% of its inhabitants, has become all the more symbolic as the front is more or less stabilized elsewhere — with the exception of Russian bombardments of Ukrainian cities.

All this only reinforces the feeling that there is no end in sight for this war. "Dying for Bakhmut" has today become the symbol of each side’s determination to not cede a single inch on its objectives.

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