Bakhmut holds as battle heats up amid fog and mud

Experts warn that Russian forces may soon either take over or encircle the small city

Banner displayed in central Kyiv, Ukraine.Feb. 25, 2023.
Shelly Kittleson
Banner displayed in central Kyiv, Ukraine.Feb. 25, 2023.

Bakhmut holds as battle heats up amid fog and mud

Kyiv: The land being fought over in eastern Ukraine is awash in barren trees, grey skies and terrain that has already begun to turn muddy, rendering movement more arduous: one more risk amid a multitude for soldiers there.

As the freezing land softens and temperatures warm, the roads used to supply the small city of Bakhmut still under Ukrainian forces’ control as of the first week of March have become more problematic. Only a narrow corridor west remains under Ukrainian control, with Russian forces able to target vehicles coming in and going out.

Rain and fog are reportedly making the fight more difficult.

Russia is, through sheer numbers thrown at the battlefield and a heedless attitude towards deaths incurred, continuing to inch forward.

Shelly Kittleson
Destroyed Russian tanks between Kyiv and Bucha, Ukraine. Feb. 22, 2023.

Experts warn that Russian forces may soon either take over or encircle the small city, numbering some 70,000 inhabitants prior to war, thereby trapping soldiers and the few thousand civilians thought to have remained.

The risk of a siege and/or occupation weighs heavily in the minds of those who remember the photos of mass graves Russian forces have left in their wake in multiple other Ukrainian towns they occupied even for a short period, such as Bucha.

Last year’s three-month siege of the much larger city of Mariupol, which had a pre-war population of over 400,000 and is located further south but in the same administrative oblast as Bakhmut, ended with Russia occupying the entire city in May 2022.

The scenes of the Russian encirclement of the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in Mariupol, where an estimated over 2,000 soldiers and civilians were stuck for weeks, are also ever-present in many of their minds.

A large banner still hangs in central Kyiv urging to “Free Mariupol Defenders”.

Some officials have downplayed the risks of encirclement and stated that not only does Ukraine have enough forces to push Russia back from the city if necessary, but that decisions made about Bakhmut will ultimately be based on whether the goal is to inflict the highest possible losses or to hold the city.

Throughout the war, Ukrainian forces have repeatedly been shown to outperform previous assessments of their capabilities. Many Western policymakers and commentators had initially predicted a quick Russian victory when Moscow invaded on 24 February, 2022 in what was a massive escalation of a conflict underway since 2014.

One year later, Russian forces are hundreds of kilometers from the Ukrainian capital and forced to rely on massive recruitment of prisoners through a shadowy military contracting company.

Attacks including massive numbers of missiles continue to take place on many areas of the country, however. Russia launched some 81 at several regions in Ukraine over the night between March 8 and March 9, 34 of which were shot down by Ukrainian air defense according to official statements.

Tactical decisions weighed

Serhiy Hrabsky, a Ukrainian military expert and former colonel well known within Ukraine for his analytical assessments, told Al Majalla in an interview in late February in Ukraine that Russia is employing a tactic “we call thousands of cuts”, wearing down Ukrainian forces.

This tactic, he noted, can be effective for the short term though unlikely to be so for any longer period of time.

He added in the interview with Al Majalla that, “maybe Ukrainian forces will withdraw from Bakhmut soon”, presumably due to assessments that the heavily damaged town is not worth losses sustained and/or that the forces deployed on this part of the frontline could be better utilised further south, when a spring offensive by Ukrainian forces is expected to focus.

Others have since echoed this assessment.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said 8 March in Stockholm that, “What we see is that Russia is throwing more troops, more forces, and what Russia lacks in quality they try to make up in quantity.”

"They have suffered big losses, but at the same time, we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days,” he added, noting that "it is also important to highlight that this does not necessarily reflect any turning point of the war."

What we see is that Russia is throwing more troops, more forces, and what Russia lacks in quality they try to make up in quantity.They have suffered big losses, but at the same time, we cannot rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days.

Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg

The Ukrainian military has in recent weeks strengthened its defensive lines west of the city to act as a protective barrier. The nearby hilltop town of Chasiv Yar may be chosen as the location from which to prevent further Russian advances should Bakhmut fall.

As of early March, the Ukrainian government continued to send reinforcements to the small embattled city. 

Prison recruits and photo ops near tanks

The battle for Bakhmut has been underway in some form since last summer, though only in recent weeks has the fight for it intensified.

Ukrainian forces are widely thought to be fighting mainly Russian recruits fresh out of prisons. Known for their brutality, the fighters are well aware of the fact that they are seen as expendable. 

The prisoners are better paid than Russian soldiers, but most have received exceedingly little training: two weeks of very basic training in simply how to advance, crawling or otherwise, some taken prisoner by Ukrainian soldiers have claimed.

Shelly Kittleson
Destroyed Russian tanks displayed in central Kyiv, Ukraine.Feb. 23, 2023.

The recruits are part of Russia's Wagner forces. The Wagner Group has operated as a shadowy group of mercenaries clearly linked to the Russian government – despite repeated denials — for years in multiple countries including Syria and Mali.

As the UK Defence Ministry reported via Twitter in January, "On 27 December 2022, the Russian Unified State Register showed that the proxy paramilitary Wagner Group had formally registered as a legal entity. The group declared their core activity as 'management consultancy'; no mention was made of combat services."

"It is not yet clear to what extent the 'PMC Wagner Centre' entity will be used to administer Wagner's paramilitary activity. Private Military Companies (PMCs) remain illegal in Russia, despite protracted discussion about reforming the law," it added. 

"The registration continues the remarkably rapid development of the traditionally opaque group's public profile. Prigozhin only admitted to founding Wagner in September 2022; in October 2022, it opened a glossy HQ in St Petersburg."

"Wagner almost certainly now commands up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign," it stressed.

Wagner almost certainly now commands up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign.

UK Defence Ministry Statement

Following the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February  last year and amid Russia's large losses in the subsequent months, the Wagner Group began a massive recruitment campaign in Russian prisons.

The US National Security Council has estimated that about 80% of Wagner forces have been recruited from these prisons.

Many of the others are professional soldiers that are for the most part believed to be veterans of Russia's security forces. 

In the first week of March, photos and videos were circulated online showing Wagner fighters replacing the Ukrainian flag with the banner of their company — significantly, not Russia's national flag  — on a T-34 tank monument located in the eastern part of Bakhmut.

The monument commemorates the liberation of the city during WWII from Nazi forces. 

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said on social media that his forces had "taken all of the eastern part of Bakhmut".

Western analysts concur that it is likely that this statement is accurate. The center of the city lies on the western bank of the river cutting through Bakhmut, however, which remains in Ukrainian hands as of early March.

Industrial area largely emptied of its population

Bakhmut is located in the Donbas area of eastern Ukraine, well-known for being a coal basin from which its name originally derived. It comprises the Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts, both of which have been partially under Russian control since 2014.

Compared with an estimated pre-war population of around 70,000 people, only a few thousand people are thought to remain amid the constant deprivations and risks in Bakhmut. 

The city is located in the Donetsk Oblast [administrative district], long Ukraine's most populous though many have now fled.

Operational security requires few details released

Ukraine has sent thousands of fighters to prevent — or at least stave off — the takeover of the small industrial city of Bakhmut, but officials are wary of giving even rough estimates of troop and casualty numbers.

"We can't give numbers and we can't say who is where," one told Al Majalla.

Multiple fighters who had recently returned from the front for a brief period to Kyiv also declined to comment on the fight there. 

Several media outlets were granted brief access in early March to areas near Bakhmut such as Chasiv Yar.

In the face of Russian propaganda about having retaken the entire city, international journalists as near as possible to frontlines are seen as useful to dispel rumours and to increase morale across the country and among fighters.

On his nightly video address on 6 March, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that his advisors had agreed to push forward and to send more reinforcements to Bakhmut. 

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