The city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk oblast of Ukraine was embroiled in the world’s most brutal conventional warfare since World War Two. The initial battle saw a ten-month grind by the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, with Ministry of Defense (MOD) support at the cost of tens of thousands of casualties.
Bakhmut today has been reduced to rubble as Russia’s infamous carpet bombing tactics leveled what’s left of the city to the ground. Despite the victory gained by Russia, it has become evident that it was pyrrhic at most as Ukraine has counterattacked around the city.
The ongoing counteroffensive has seen Ukraine grind through the strategic heights of Bakhmut, and due to the Kremlin propagandizing the city, Russia now faces continuous nightmares where they wasted vast combat power to retain.
A Pyrrhic Victory
The battle of Bakhmut, which began in August 2022, saw its heaviest and most prolific combat around late December of that year, as Russia started a winter offensive to capture the entirety of the Donbas region of Ukraine. The battle was led by the Wagner Group, a famous private military company in Russia that uses hardline tactics to achieve their results.
Ukrainian brigades and their territorial defense would hold onto the city for as long as possible, despite Western pleas to tell them to abandon the city to focus on their summer counteroffensive. Nevertheless, Kyiv’s political and military leadership would hold onto Bakhmut into the late spring, denying Russia a propaganda victory on Red Army Victory Day and afflicting scathing attrition rates on Wagner and Russian Forces.
With support from Russian paratroopers (VDV) on the flanks, the Wagner Group would capture the city in late May. The Kremlin heavily propagandized the capture of Bakhmut, as the city’s fall was Russia’s first strategic victory since the battle of Severodonetsk in the spring of 2022.
The Battle Became the Spark of Mutiny
The Wagner Group, led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, would often clash with the Russian Ministry of Defense over logistical support during their offensive. During the fighting, Prigozhin would display several dozen abusive messages at Russian Defense Minister, Shoigu, and his chief of staff, Gerasimov.
Infighting would continue to grow as Wagner’s telegram channel, ‘Grey Zone,’ became popular amongst Russian society, telling the realities of the war in Ukraine and how the Russian MOD was lying about the facts on the ground. Wagner’s use of convicts for human wave frontal assaults helped the offensive with counter-battery fire, but ultimately, the PMC suffered over 20,000 killed, according to Prigozhin himself.
The immense casualties taken for the city were a significant factor in Wagner’s mutiny in late May. Several thousand fighters from the Wagner Group stormed Rostov and Voronezh before nearly reaching Moscow and suddenly stopping a near civil war after mediation from Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian dictator.
Putin and the Kremlin immediately moved to integrate Wagner under the command of the MOD, with Prigozhin’s most hardline followers being exiled to Belarus with him. Russian media was instructed not to glorify Wagner anymore, and Prigozhin has been labeled a traitor among bloggers and media personalities.
Prigozhin left Russia under cheers from Russian civilians, showing how popular he has become as Putin and Shoigu have failed with battlefield success. Russian commanders affiliated with Wagner, such as General Suvorikin, have been detained as Putin will look to purge any disloyal elements out of his military that threatens his autocratic rule.
By Propagandizing the City, Russia is Forced to Hold it.
Akin to Hitler’s propaganda over Stalingrad, Putin has made Bakhmut, an annihilated city, part of Russia’s primary propaganda war effort against Ukraine. By overestimating Bakhmut’s value, especially as Ukraine controls the even more important heights of Chasiv Yar, Russia is now forced to hold onto the city, even when there is no more cover and concealment to protect its forces.
One of Ukraine’s main directions in its ongoing counteroffensive has been around Bakhmut, which the Russian MOD is now forced to hold. With Wagner withdrawing from the city, less experienced and poorly trained Russian conscripts now must hold the line, making it even more likely for the Russian military death toll to increase significantly once heavy fighting came to the city again.
Ukraine’s Advances on the Flanks
Wagner’s central strategy was to grind through the city, using convicts as human waves to overrun the Ukrainian Armed Forces (ZSU) positions eventually. Wagner turned the tide in the initial battle because the mercenaries and Russian paratroopers took strategic heights around the city, allowing effective artillery fire to conceal the PMC.
Ukraine has learned from Wagner’s meat-grinding strategy, and instead of fighting fierce battles inside the city, the ZSU looks to encircle it. Over the past month, the ZSU has taken back much of the strategic heights, directing their fields of fire towards the less-trained Russian conscripts manning the flanks.
Bakhmut remains a field of fire as Russia expanded much of its combat power in the city, and with the ZSU still holding the heights of Chasiv Yar, artillery fire continues to rain down on the town. If Russian Forces become encircled, Putin could potentially have a disaster as tens of thousands of conscripts would be cut off from the rest of their Donbas garrison.
If the MOD Losses it, Wagner Will Become even more Popular
Russia is now in a Catch-22 scenario with Bakhmut. If Russian Forces stay and fail to hold the city, it will be a psychological blow not seen on a military front since the Battle of Stalingrad. If Russian Forces withdraw under pressure, it continues to make the MOD and Putin look extremely weak, as tens of thousands of troops die fighting to capture the city.
Losing a city that Wagner captured would be the most significant propaganda victory for the exiled mercenaries. Prigozhin, who is now a rival of Putin and branded a traitor by Russia, would look even more competent amongst the general public as he was the only one to deliver a victory to the country in 2023. In contrast, Putin, Shoigu, and Gerasimov lost. Particularly with Prigozhin Or Suvorikin, arguably the only two competent commanders they have left, Putin is veering toward the fate of Tsar Nicholas II.
A potential loss of Bakhmut only a few months after Russia captured the city in a Pyrrhic victory would demoralize what was left of their invasion force. By likening the city as a gateway to Kyiv’s fall, Moscow is now forced to hold onto a pile of ash with no cover or concealment and strategic heights that Ukraine has retaken. Russia, which played a significant role in encircling General Paulus’ Sixth Army in Stalingrad, potentially faces the same mistakes Germany made on the Eastern Front.