Explained: Ukraine’s fight for Bakhmut

DW April 4, 2023

The battle for the eastern city of Bakhmut has become the longest and bloodiest of the war, with severe losses on both the Russian and Ukrainian sides. How has the situation developed since the start of the siege?

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What has happened so far?

Some 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut before Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. The battle for control over the eastern city erupted in late summer. Since then, Russian forces have besieged Bakhmut, a city under Kiyv’s control within the industrial Donbas area.

The battle of Bakhmut, raging for nine months now, has descended into trench warfare. No other city has been under siege for this long in the Ukraine war. Ukraine and Russia have both suffered heavy losses, with thousands of soldiers dead. The front lines, however, have remained largely unchanged. 

In early January, the head of Russia’s private mercenary Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, announced the capture of Soledar, a small town near Bakhmut. Some two weeks later, Ukraine confirmed its army had indeed withdrawn from Soledar. That Russian victory allowed its troops to advance further toward Bakhmut.

Bakhmut has seen months of fierce fighting
Bakhmut has seen months of fierce fightingImage: Libkos/AP/dpa/picture alliance

Most recently, Prigozhin claimed in a video that the Russian flag had been raised over a municipal building in Bakhmut and that the most strategically important city in the Donetsk region had been captured from a legal point of view.

Kyiv has rejected the claim as misinformation, and Prigozhin’s statement has also not been confirmed by the Russian Defense Ministry. The battle for Bakhmut, therefore, rages on.

It is nearly impossible to independently verify claims made by Russia and Ukraine. It is, however, clear that much of Bakhmut has been laid to waste in the months of fighting. Of the city’s 70,000 residents before the war, only 3,000 are believed to still be in the city.

How important is Bakhmut to Ukraine?

For nine months, Russian troops have besieged Bakhmut without Ukrainian defenders relinquishing control, which has given the city a great symbolic importance amid the broader war. The Ukrainian counteroffensive, however, has run out of steam since the autumn months. Its last major feat was liberating the western part of the region and retaking the city of Kherson in November.

Inside the trenches and hospitals of Bakhmut

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Bakhmut is strategically important due to its location along the E40 highway, which connects Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, with the Russian city Rostov-on-Don. If Russia were to conquer Bakhmut, this would allow it to move on to Ukrainian cities further west such as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, an important industrial hub and administrative center in the Donetsk region. This, in turn, would bring Russia closer to its goal of conquering the entire Donetsk area.

What could happen next?

So far, neither Russia nor Ukraine seem willing to stop fighting for control over the now largely devastated city. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has repeatedly said Ukraine will continue to hold Bakhmut.

Yet military analysts have criticized this stance, arguing it could be more sensible to withdraw to a new defensive line. Otherwise, Ukrainian analyst Oleg Zhdanov said, Ukrainian reservists needed for the counteroffensive could be killed.

Bakhmut: ‘Fortress city’ on Ukraine’s front line

Before the Russian invasion, more than 73,000 people lived in Bakhmut. Now, a fierce battle is raging for the Donbas city. Not all civilians have left. A picture of life in Bakhmut since the start of the Ukraine war.

Image: LIBKOS/AP Photo/picture alliance

Before the war

This photo, taken in the spring of 2022, shows murals in Bakhmut on the theme of family and children. By May, the front line had advanced to just outside the town, and artillery and air attacks began. Many residential buildings were severely damaged.

Image: JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

‘We feel homeless’

Apartment blocks in eastern Bakhmut were the first to be hit by the Russian attacks in the spring of 2022. Today, these neighborhoods look much like the ruined southern port city of Mariupol. Halyna, an evacuee from Bakhmut whose house was destroyed, told journalists: “We feel homeless. We’ve lost everything. There’s nowhere for us to return to.”

Image: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images

Ruins of a school

Two teachers hug in front of the ruins of their school in Bakhmut. It was bombed by the Russian army and badly damaged on July 24, 2022. Fortunately, no one was killed or injured in this particular attack.

Image: Diego Herrera Carcedo/AA/picture alliance

Monuments destroyed

Many historically significant buildings in Bakhmut have been damaged and destroyed since the start of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. They include the Palace of Culture, the 19th-century former home of the businessman Polyakov and the former girls’ high school. More modern buildings, which were once seen as Bakhmut’s “calling card,” have also been destroyed.

Image: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Preparing to evacuate

Oleksandr Havrys is making final preparations to evacuate his wife and two children from Bakhmut to Kyiv. By March 7, 2023, fewer than 4,000 people were left in the city. Before the war, it had a population of around 73,000.

Image: Metin Aktas/AA/picture alliance

Those who remain

More than 90% of the inhabitants have left Bakhmut and the surrounding area. Those who remain are mostly sick, or live alone. For months, only a few shops and a pharmacy were open, if there was a pause in the firing. Humanitarian aid was brought in by charities and volunteers.

Image: ANATOLII STEPANOV/AFP/Getty Images

Staying despite everything

Olha, who is pregnant, stands outside an air raid bunker in Bakhmut with her husband Vlad, on January 28. They are among the few civilians who have remained in the city despite the fierce fighting. These days, you need a special pass in order to get to Bakhmut.

Image: Raphael Lafargue/abaca/picture alliance

Living in fear

Valentyna Bondarenko, a 79-year-old pensioner, looks out of her apartment window in Bakhmut in August 2022. Many residents of the town have endured months in cellars and emergency shelters because of the endless shelling and constant danger.

Image: Daniel Carde/Zumapress/picture alliance

Daily life in the cellar

“We’re used to all sorts of whistling noises and explosions,” Nina from Bakhmut (pictured, right) told DW. She said her daughters have gone “to Europe,” but her and her husband want to stay as long as the Ukrainian army is in the city. They would, however, leave if the situation deteriorates, she said. “So as not to get in the way of the military when the enemy is hiding behind the houses.”

Image: Oleksandra Indukhova/DW

Lining up for humanitarian aid

In the fall, the humanitarian situation in the city deteriorated further. Russian troops launched an offensive on August 1, and the power grid was damaged by bombings and attacks. Food supplies became hard to obtain, and the mobile phone network collapsed. Volunteer aid workers also came under fire.

Image: Diego Herrera Carcedo/AA/picture alliance

Heavy artillery fire

The key battles for Bakhmut are being fought by artillery units. The Ukrainian military estimates that almost the full range of artillery and mortars are in action in the area. Bakhmut is being ferociously attacked by units of the private Russian army known as the Wagner Group. The Ukrainian military continues to resist all attacks.

Image: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Ukrainian flag from Bakhmut sent to US Congress

On December 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy paid a visit to Ukrainian soldiers defending Bakhmut. From there, he brought back a Ukrainian flag, which he presented two days later to Nancy Pelosi, the then Speaker of the US House of Representatives, on a visit to the US Congress. The flag was signed by soldiers defending Ukraine’s sovereignty on the front line.

Image: Carolyn Kaster/AP Photo/picture alliance

Treating the wounded

The main tasks of military medics on the front line include stabilizing the wounded, preventing deaths from shock and loss of blood and securing the transportation of serious cases to safer military hospitals away from the fighting.

Image: Evgeniy Maloletka/AP Photo/picture alliance

80% of the city is in ruins

This picture from the final days of December 2022 shows smoke rising from the ruins of private houses on the outskirts of Bakhmut. According to local authorities, as of March 2023, more than 80% of the city’s housing stock had been destroyed by fighting.

Image: Libkos/AP/picture alliance

Satellite image of the destruction

A satellite image from January 4, 2023, published by the space technology company Maxar, shows the extent of the destruction near Bakhmut. “In recent months, the city has been at the center of intense fighting between Russian and Ukrainian troops, and the pictures show extensive damage to buildings and infrastructure,” it commented.

Image: Maxar Technologies/picture alliance/AP

Ghost town

This photo, taken by an Associated Press news agency drone on February 13, also illustrates the destruction in the city. Whole rows of houses and apartment buildings have been gutted, with only the outer walls and damaged facades still standing. The roofs, ceilings and floors have collapsed, exposing the interiors to the snow.

Image: AP Photo/picture alliance

‘Fortress Bakhmut’

A Ukrainian soldier walks past graffiti on a wall in the city center that reads “Bakhmut loves Ukraine.” The country’s political and military leaders have decided to maintain their defense of the city. However, NATO has not ruled out the possibility that Bakhmut may fall — though this would not necessarily change the course of the war.

Image: Libkos/AP Photo/picture alliance

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Military historian Roman Ponomarenko also sees benefits to withdrawing. “If we just give up Bakhmut and withdraw our troops and equipment, nothing bad will happen,” he recently told media outlets. “If they [Russia] fully encircle [the city], we will lose men and equipment.”

Ralph Thiele, a former staff member in the private office of NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, told DW in early March he thought Ukraine’s chances of holding Bakhmut were slim. He said Ukrainian forces there are largely encircled and militarily outgunned by Russia.

This article was originally published in German

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