Battle Of Bakhmut, Why It Means More To Russia
Heavy fighting continues in Bakhmut, as Russia steps up efforts to take the besieged eastern Ukrainian city. But there is a subplot taking place between competing Russian factions that are forcing all sides to double down. And there are many more battles to come.
In a war that lasts as long as the one now happening in Ukraine, some battles take on a dimension beyond their actual importance in the course of the conflict. The battle that has been going on for months in Bakhmut, an eastern Ukraine city now in ruins, is one.
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Capturing Bakhmut and forcing Ukrainian defenders to withdraw, which Moscow has clearly announced as its next target, has become more of a symbolic objective than a strategic one.
For both sides, the price of the fighting in Bakhmut is immense. No one can say yet how this battle will affect the rest of the war.
An internal Russian clash
Hundreds, maybe thousands of people have died for the control of Bakhmut. We will probably never know the exact number, which is kept secret by both sides. The city is totally destroyed, without a single building spared.
Why has this city become so significant? There are two wars in one. The first pits Ukrainian defenders against Russian invaders, while in the second, the Wagner militia faces off against the regular Russian army — Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin against Valery Gerasimov, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces.
In Bakhmut, Wagner's men are on the front line, dying to gain just a few meters. A Ukrainian soldier told The Guardian he had seen drone images of Wagner soldiers passing piles of bodies as they advanced towards Ukrainian lines.
Ukrainian soldiers prepare a tank for combat in the fronlines of Bakhmut
In the struggle for influence in Moscow, Prigozhin wants to prove his usefulness. He has been sharing surprising videos, including on Saturday night when he said that if Wagner evacuated from Bakhmut, the Russian front would collapse.
This statement becomes all the more surprising given the Russian claim that city is nearly encircled. This is implicitly confirmed by the fact that Ukrainian defenders destroyed Bakhmut's bridges after bringing heavy weaponry into the city.
The real challenge will be the next offensives and counter-offensives.
So why does Prigozhin speak as if defeat is imminent? He says his forces are not receiving the ammunition they need, implicitly accusing Gerasimov. This internal rivalry is unprecedented in wartime, as is the silence of the Kremlin.
Overblown strategic significance
Ukraine hopes to minimize the significance of the possible fall of Bakhmut, which is hard to believe given the lives and energy lost defending the city. Russia, on the other hand, will certainly exaggerate its significance — desperately needing to succeed after numerous failures, including the catastrophic defeat in February in Vuhledar, southern Ukraine.
But this may not be the most important development to watch. The real challenge will be the next offensives and counter-offensives until the end of summer. These aren't battles with symbolic stakes, but real tests of each side's ability to break through enemy lines and upset the balance of power.
No one knows yet where the Ukrainians will counterattack, but there is no doubt that it will come. The war will not be decided in Bakhmut.
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