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Bakhmut: Ukraine Fights to the Death while Observers are Split on Withdrawal

As the Russian winter offensive appears to have stalled on the Donbas front, Tom Mutch assesses the military cost to both sides in the war

Mourners at the funeral of ‘Da Vinci’ in Kyiv. Photo: Tom Mutch

BakhmutUkraine Fights to the Death while Observers are Split on Withdrawal

As the Russian winter offensive appears to have stalled on the Donbas front, Tom Mutch assesses the military cost to both sides in the war

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After six months of terrible warfare, the Russian attack on Bakhmut looks to have stalled. According to UK intelligence, the much-feared Russian winter offensive has come to nought.

“As long as we have even ten people remaining here, their lives matter,” says Sergey Chaus, the head of the civilian-military administration in Chasiv Yar. “The situation in Bakhmut is stable- stably fucked” he continues, noting that the Russians come “like insects” with no regard for the lives of the soldiers they throw into the meat grinder that this battle has become. 

Chasiv Yar is a run-down village with roads covered in potholes and footpaths and fields caked with mud is a picture of the post-industrial decline of many of the towns in the Donbas region. Perhaps a tenth of its original 15,000 inhabitants remain, many of those being elderly or disabled.

Two Ukrainian soldiers help an elderly man into a humanitarian aid centre in Chasiv Yar. Photo: Tom Mutch

Outside a humanitarian aid centre, two Ukrainian police officers help Vladimir Skripnyk, a 68-year-old with severely bowed and bent legs out of an ambulance and into a humanitarian aid centre. He tells me he is a widower, with his wife having died two years ago, and lives alone. He seems unafraid of the war and despite two shells recently landing next to his apartment, he has no plans to leave.

Were it not for its tactical importance, standing astride the only remaining road into Bakhmut, it would be little known even inside the country. Now, Ukrainian military equipment flows through the town, with ambulances ferrying wounded troops from the frontlines a regular sight. Bakhmut itself is now closed to journalists, with Ukrainian authorities considering the roads too dangerous, so we can only report from the surrounding region. Both incoming and outgoing artillery fire can be heard frequently throughout and around Chasiv Yar.

A destroyed statue of Russian author Maxim Gorky in Chasiv Yar. Photo: Tom Mutch

In a small park in the town centre is a decapitated statue of Russian author Maxim Gorky. Symbols of Russian culture and literature, such as a statue of Catherine the Great in Odesa, have been torn down throughout the country. A local official told us this one had been destroyed by shelling – an odd that claim that doesn’t add up with how clean and accurate the cuts are.

When Byline Times visited the town at the beginning of March, we spent around an hour in the basement of an apartment building to wait out a Russian artillery barrage. Chaus told us that in the previous days, a volley of GRAD rockets had smashed into apartment buildings. As they were deserted there were no civilian casualties, but the town’s residents seem shellshocked and the mood is grim. The Ukrainian army is preparing defences in the town, and we saw soldiers enter and leave fortifications next to the cellar we were sheltering in through a secret entrance.

Bakhmut itself has been the centre of the battle for the Donbas region ever since Russian forces captured the Luhansk cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the summer of 2022. While Ukraine has since regained swathes of its territory during successful counteroffensives first in the Kharkiv region, and then in Kherson, the Russians have made small, grinding gains at huge costs around Bakhmut.

In January, they captured the salt mining town of Soledar, the first significant settlement they had captured in months of fighting. The towns in this area have much less than half their initial populations remaining- and some of those remaining are still pro-Russian, waiting for Putin’s promises of ‘liberation.’ Ukrainians call these hated citizens the ‘zhdunny’, or the ‘waiting’.

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Yet Bakhmut has been a meat grinder not just for the Russians, but for Ukrainian defenders as well. While exact casualty figures are difficult to come by, US intelligence reckons that the Ukrainians have suffered well north of 100,000 killed or injured since the start of the full-scale invasion. I personally know two friends who have recently lost family members in Bakhmut, and some are starting to doubt that the fight over this city is still worth it.

Rob Lee, a military analyst who recently visited Bakhmut, returned with the impression that Ukraine should consider disengaging and fighting along more defensible lines- places like Chasiv Yar. He explained that “Bakhmut is no longer a good place to attrit Russian forces…The attrition ratio became worse once Russia seized the northern flank in mid/late-Feb.”

When Ukraine held the areas surrounding Bakhmut, it was difficult for the Russians to find good firing positions with visibility into Ukrainian defences. Now that they control approaches to the city from three sides, and control the eastern bank of the Bakhmutska river, they are pounding Ukrainian troops with their advantage in artillery and shells and causing significant casualties.

Lees compared this to the situation outside the town of Vuhledar, around 100 kilometres south of Bakhmut. Here, Russians have suffered huge casualties in large tank battles, losing dozens of armoured vehicles with almost nothing to show for it in terms of territorial gains.

“Fight where you’re strongest. You want more places like Vuhledar, and fewer places like Bakhmut” Lee says.

The Ukrainians being killed are also in one sense far more valuable than their Russian counterparts. Many Russians fighting with the Wagner group are prisoners convicted of heinous offences who are used as completely expendable cannon fodder, while the Ukrainians who volunteered first were often the most skilled, educated and patriotic citizens. When I visited a Ukrainian National Guard unit fighting in Donbas last year, all the members were highly skilled professionals- one couple were practising lawyers studying for their PHDs, and others were university lecturers.

Decorated tank traps outside Da Vinci’s funeral in Kyiv. Photo: Tom Mutch

Earlier this month, the youngest ‘Hero of Ukraine’, Dymtro Kotsiubailo, call sign Da Vinci, was killed in Bakhmut. Both President Zelensky and Ukrainian Armed Forces Chief Zaluzhnyi publicly mourned at his funeral, underscoring the national grief surrounding these losses. In terms of the citizens who determine a country’s future, Ukraine is losing far more valuable human capital in this fight than Russia is.

That the fight for Bakhmut is too costly is not a view shared by everyone, including those fighting in Bakhmut. In Konstantinyvka, the closest Ukrainian-controlled city and a crucial logistics hub, soldiers huddle in cafes and gas stations, sipping coffee and smoking cigarettes on their way to and from the frontlines.

Outside one of these stations, we met Sam, a 37-year-old former US soldier who served tours and saw combat in Afghanistan and Iraq, which he says were nowhere near the intensity of this fight.

According to him, “Bakhmut must stand. It can’t fall now, it’s too important, and anyway I think they have made the right decision to hold the city,” Sam says he has trained Ukrainian forces and has good visibility into their strengths and weaknesses. He maintains that western aid to Ukraine needs to increase and gives us a shopping list of gear the Ukrainians need, not just high-tech artillery systems and western tanks, but heavy machine guns, mine sweeping equipment and small arms ammunition for urban street fights, where artillery and tanks are less manoeuvrable. Sam remains convinced Ukraine can win both in Bakhmut and the rest of the country- if only the West was to give them the kit to do it with.

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Bakhmut has taken on a symbolic, almost mythological significance. When Zelensky gave his historic speech at the US Congress last year, he bought with him a Ukrainian flag signed by the defenders of the city. Also, foreign observers have consistently underrated Ukrainian abilities and resolve to fight. At the beginning of the war, few believed that Kyiv would hold out more than a week.

As the war ground on, many doubted Ukraine could liberate its territory until the counter-offensives in Kherson and Kharkiv proved them wrong. Now, there are discussions about Ukrainian troops hoisting the blue and yellow colours of the national flag in occupied Crimea. When I was in Donbas last September, many people predicted Bakhmut would not last another month. 

Now with the Russian offensive almost exhausted, talk is turning to a potential Ukrainian counter-offensive in the southern Zaporizhzhia oblast, to try and cut Russia’s land corridor to occupied Crimea. Six months on, Bakhmut holds. 

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