This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.
In a courtyard outside a battered apartment building in the eastern city of Bakhmut, the crackle of a makeshift fire on which an elderly woman named Alla was trying to boil water was occasionally interrupted by the crack, whistle, and thump of incoming Russian artillery.
She didn’t flinch.
“I wish I had some canned meat. But there’s no meat,” she told RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service. “It’s cold. We were looking for a place to fit a stove inside the apartment, but there’s no place to put it. But we’ll still survive the winter.”
“We’ve been praying a lot,” she said.
For the moment, Alla is among a dwindling number of residents who are choosing to stay put in Bakhmut, which is currently the site of the most intense fighting in this phase of Russia’s 10-month-old assault on Ukraine.
Located astride two major crossroads and home to a decades-old winery, Bakmut has been all but emptied of its 70,000 residents, and the city’s buildings and houses are — or are steadily being reduced to — rubble, as Ukrainian troops defend the city’s northern, eastern, and southern approaches against Russian forces creeping across fields and gentle slopes dipping down to the Bakhmutovka River.
Many of the full-frontal assaults are being led by soldiers from Russia’s notorious private mercenary company, Vagner Group, according to Ukrainian, Western, as well as Russian officials; some reports point to World War I-style “human wave” infantry attacks.
The question is: Why is Russia expending so much manpower and effort to capture this city at this stage in the war — a city whose tactical significance is eclipsed by the sustained ferocity of the assault?
“There’s particularly intense fighting near Bakhmut in the Donbas region, where Russian forces are conducting offensive ground operations in an attempt to take the city,” a senior U.S. Defense Department official said on December 12. “Fighting remains heavy and the Russians have made some incremental gains in taking territory. However, Ukraine continues to hold the city.
“For whatever reason, we continue to see Russia prioritize this particular area,” the official said.
Even Ukrainian commanders say Russia’s obsession with Bakhmut — after several months of sporadic efforts — is head-scratching.
“Militarily, Bakhmut has no strategic importance,” Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskiy, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said during a TV appearance last week.
“But it has psychological significance,” he said, due to a series of earlier battlefield losses inflicted by Ukrainian troops: in the Kharkiv region, northwest of Bakhmut in September, for example, or more recently in the southern Kherson region.
Capturing the city “will be symbolic for the enemy,” he said. “Therefore, [Russia] is trying in any way to take control of this city.”
Located about 700 kilometers east of Kyiv and about 80 kilometers north of the regional capital, Donetsk, Bakhmut itself was one of the earliest sites of open conflict in early 2014, when Russia first stoked a covert armed insurrection to take control of part of the Donbas.
Then known as Artemivsk, the city was retaken from Russian-backed fighters in July 2014 by Ukrainian government forces. It was renamed Bakhmut in 2016 and had been largely rebuilt since then, serving as a key trading post and access point for people coming and going from parts of the Donbas that were controlled by Russian-backed militias.
The city had been indirectly threatened over the months, particularly as Russian forces in early July pushed Ukrainian troops out of the twin cities of Syevyerodonetsk and Lysychansk, 60 kilometers to the northeast. The highway that led from Bakhmut was a key supply route for Ukrainian troops.
In September, meanwhile, Ukrainian troops stunned Russia with a surprise counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region and retook the Donetsk region railway hub town of Lyman, about 60 kilometers north of Bakhmut.
Weeks later, in mid-November, Ukraine pushed Russian troops from the western bank of the Dnieper River, near the city of Kherson, and Russia repositioned some of its forces back to the Donbas.
Bakhmut now appears to be the only place along the Donbas front lines where Russian troops are actively and aggressively on the offensive, officials and experts said.
Military experts say taking Bakhmut would allow Russia to disrupt Ukraine’s supply lines but also open the door for a future offensive on Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, two bigger cities with more industry and rail access.
Vagner mercenaries, who played key roles in besieging the port city of Mariupol, as well as the capture of Syevyerodonetsk, are among the spearhead units that have been pushing primarily from the east and southeast, according to Ukrainian and Western intelligence and open-source reports.
“From what I know, Russians are only using infantry and artillery in the city. No tanks or heavy armored vehicles,” said Konrad Muzyka, a Poland-based defense analyst. “As to why, I don’t have a clear answer. The bulk of fighting is done by Vagner, so why not? It probably does not cost Russians that much.
“It could also be the question of momentum,” he said in a message to RFE/RL. “They have been fighting for the city for months, so organizationally and psychologically it may be difficult for them to stop now and admit defeat.
“Regardless, even if the city falls today, it should not have an operational impact on the situation in this part of Ukraine,” he said.
Over the past week, Russian troops have inched closer toward the city, reportedly capturing a furniture factory on the city’s eastern outskirts and claiming control of a plant that manufactured windows.
Vagner’s founder and owner, business tycoon Yevgeny Prigozhin, himself signaled last month that Bakhmut was a strategic priority, though he also suggested the destruction of Ukrainian troops was also a goal.
“Our goal is not Bakhmut himself but the destruction of the Ukrainian Army and the reduction of its combat potential, which has an extremely positive effect on other areas, which is why this operation was dubbed the ‘Bakhmut meat grinder,'” Prigozhin was quoted as saying in a statement distributed on one of his Telegram channels and the social media account VK. “In this regard, do not run ahead of the locomotive; it will happen.”
For military experts, the intensity of the push is perplexing.
“The costs associated with six months of brutal, grinding, and attrition-based combat around Bakhmut far outweigh any operational advantage that the Russians can obtain from taking Bakhmut,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said in a report released late last month.
“It’s doesn’t seem like it’s very well thought out,” said Nick Reynolds, a research analyst for land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, a London think tank.
‘A Problem Of Quality’
He said the reports of exceptionally high casualties among Russian forces may reflect a problem of manpower quality: While many of Vagner’s soldiers are highly trained and skilled, Vagner has also been recruiting heavily in Russian prisons, promising inmates reduced prison time in exchange for fighting in Ukraine.
Muzyka said it appeared that the infantry assaults on Bakhmut were coming in waves: The first involves former prison inmates, followed by newly mobilized soldiers. That’s followed by a third wave of regular Vagner soldiers.
“In this case, I think it’s a problem of the quality of men, of troops,” Reynolds said. “It’s more likely poorly coordinated use of infantry that’s causing them to try and reinforce and then being mowed down by the Ukrainians.”
The intensity of the Bakhmut fighting and the prominence of Vagner troops in the assault reflect the degree of battlefield autonomy that Vagner — and Prigozhin — have been given by Russian commanders, he said.
“Given that the way Wagner operates, the Russian military doesn’t control them really,” Reynolds said. “They may be able to influence how Vagner Group is used, but Vagner is quite independent. That’s partly driven by Prigozhin’s political ambitions.”
“Bakhmut is another good case when political considerations are out of sync with Russian military capacity/performance,” Mykola Byelyeskov, a defense expert at the National Institute for Strategic Studies, a government-linked research organization in Kyiv, told RFE/RL.
Prior to Russia’s losses in Kharkiv and Kherson, he said, Bakhmut was of secondary importance, mainly to Prigozhin and the concentration of Vagner troops there.
“Now, taking control of Bakhmut is of utmost political importance to Putin and the Russian Army to deflect attention from previous failures and trying to attain more limited political goals of war,” Byelyeskov wrote.
“But since Russian forces are incapable of swift penetration of Ukrainian defenses and the envelopment of Ukrainian forces, all they can do are slow attempts to push out Ukrainian troops. And they pay a major price for it in materiel and men especially,” he said.