Adrian Olivier,

When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, part of Russia’s war aims were to capture the region known as the Donbas, made up of the two oblasts (provinces) of Donetsk and Luhansk, each home to a separatist state since 2014 and now annexed by Russia. These are the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). The Donbas economy is dominated by heavy industry – coal mining and metallurgy. The Donetsk Oblast accounts for more than half of the coal, finished steel, coke, cast iron and steel production in Ukraine. The products of these industries are then shipped to the wider world through the port city of Mariupol on the Azov Sea coast. Mariupol is under Russian occupation and the Donbas has been scarred by war since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the resulting rebellions in Donetsk and Luhansk. On September 30 2022, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would annex the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts

Within the Donetsk Oblast – the most populous in Ukraine – lies the town of Bakhmut. On the order of Ivan the Terrible in 1571, a fort was constructed to protect the southern border of his Empire from Crimean slave raids. Called Bakhmut since 1571, Bakhmut was renamed Artemivsk during the Soviet period until 1941, then again from 1943 until 2016. The town became Bakhmut once again in 2016 under decommunisation laws. The Russians still refer to the town as Artemivsk – or Artemosvk. Bakhmut had a pre-war population of around 70,000 inhabitants. Of those only a few thousand remain – despite the hellscape of destruction that the town has become. Power has been out since August of 2022 and water stopped being pumped in October. The houses are bombed-out shells and the streets are full of craters. While Bakhmut has seen war before – it was previously the site of the Battle of Artemivsk which took place from April 12 to July 6 2014 and resulted in a Ukrainian victory over DPR Militia units and complete control over the town – the current battle is the largest and most deadly battle of the 21st Century. 

The industrial town itself lies in the lowlands around the Bakhmut River, surrounded by high ground. Behind Bakhmut is high ground. The town is split by the Bakhmut River and the city is divided into a larger western section which is urban and contains many 9-storey soviet apartment buildings, and a smaller eastern side which is mostly multi-family houses. The western side of the town is ideal for a defender as the high rises, dense urban environment and plentiful basements provide protection and cover for armoured vehicles, including tanks, and places to weather the constant artillery barrages. The river is not a big one, yet with all the bridges across it blown up, it is very difficult to bring vehicles across it. 

The first shelling by Russian forces began on May 17 2022. Russia employs a number of artillery systems with various ranges, but many of their artillery systems can fire at targets 10 – 30 kilometres (6-18 mi) away. By May 20, despite still Ukrainian resistance, Russian forces had made advances to the west and south of Popasna (shown on the map above) and breaking though. At this time the Russian were advancing along the whole front line to the north and were trying to encircle Ukrainian troops in a large cauldron. To do this they had to advance through Bakhmut, get to the higher ground and take Kramatorsk and the important railway hub of Slovyansk. Bakhmut also lies on the highway to Sievierodonetsk (north-east of Bakhmut) – severing this would cut off Ukrainian supplies to the city. 

On 24 May, as Russian forces advanced from Popasna and took some minor villages, Ukrainian forces made a controlled withdrawal to the southwest and strengthened their defensive position at Bakhmut. Russian forces managed to reach the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway and threaten the Ukrainian supply lines in Sievierodonetsk. The end of May saw heavy fighting as Russian troops attempted to encircle Ukrainian troops in the area. 

June saw more Russian aviation employed as the advance stalled. Agricultural warehouses were hit and the road to Sievierodonestk was bombed for weeks as the Russians attempted to cut off any resupply. On June 16 the Russians launched an assault on Bakhmut and the surrounding settlements, with little result. To the north the Russians captured Lysychansk (on the way to Sievierodonestk) in the first week of July after weeks of bombing which levelled the city. With Lysychansk the Russians controlled most of the Luhansk Oblast and declared an operational pause (their forces were near exhausted after gruelling offensive operations). On July 16 Russia launched a renewed offensive focused on Bakhmut (and Siversk shown north of Bakhmut on the map). Despite the focus on Bakhmut, the Russians were only able to gain territory in the surrounding area. Later in July American HIMARS, which had arrived in late June were devastating Russian command posts and wreaking havoc on their offensive as ammunition depots were destroyed. 

On July 27 Bakhmut became the target of daily heavy shelling as the Russians edged closer. By August, Russian forces and mercenaries with the Wagner Group were pressing towards Bakhmut with increased air attacks and shelling. On August 1, Russian forces launched massive ground attacks on settlements south and southeast of Bakhmut. Wagner Group mercenaries broke through Ukrainian defences on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut. August also saw the Ukrainians broadcast their propaganda about a counteroffensive to the south in Kherson. In response the Russians withdrew some of their best troops from the northern Kharkiv front and sent them south. The remaining troops were stretched thin on a 1300km (800mi) front. The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the south began and drew Russian attention there, however the real plan was to strike in the north. On September 6, Ukrainian forces launched a devastating offensive that collapsed the Russian lines and sent them fleeing, abandoning much of their equipment and the territories they had conquered. 

Russian troops from the north moved south to reinforce the position around Bakhmut. By October, Russian troops were able to penetrate Bakhmut’s northeastern and southern suburbs, but they were ultimately forced out by Ukrainian counterattacks. By November the battle had turned into trench warfare as hundreds died every day from the withering artillery barrages – on the Russian side mostly from the Wagner Group which was employing a large number of convicts recruited from Russian prisons in exchange for pardons. As November came to a close, Russian forces advanced upon Bakhmut from the south seizing a village 15km (9mi) away. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Bakhmut on December 20 to boost morale, award medals and urge his soldiers to keep the city and halt the Russian advance.

By January 13, Russian forced had captured the nearby town of Soledar – with important salt mines – after weeks of intensive fighting. With Soledar, the Russians would be able to cut off Ukrainian supplies to Bakhmut and encircle the soldiers there. With the Russian front line stabilised by the competent General Sergey Surovikin, the Kremlin demanded a renewed offensive. Surovikin argued against one, arguing that it would be better to first absorb a Ukrainian counterattack before renewing their offensive. Fortunately for Ukraine, the Kremlin was impatient and Surovikin was replaced by Valery Gerasimov – the man responsible for the initial invasion. Gerasimov launched his ill-conceived and ill-timed offensive across the Donbas along six axes – Avdiivka, Bakhmut, Bilohorivka, Kreminna-Lyman, Marinka, and Vuhledar – in January with the aim of straining Ukrainian forces across a broad front. With the collapse of the front in the north and 300,000 newly-mobilised personnel, Russian forces now had greater troop density. Despite the numbers, their training was not sufficient to restore offensive potential. In Bakhmut, where the fighting was largely done by Wagner Group mercenaries supported by the regular armed forces and the airborne forces, the Russian attacks demonstrated they were no longer capable of large-scale combat operations. Instead, attacks were launched utilising smaller formations with little co-ordination – to grisly effect.

Thousands upon thousands of newly-recruited-from-prison Wagner mercenaries were sent forward in wave after wave to be used as targets. Once Ukrainian artillery opened fire on the convicts, Russian artillery would identify their positions and target them in turn. Each successive wave would be manned by more experienced mercenaries until the position was finally taken. Thousands of convicts – and Ukrainian soldiers – have been killed in the ‘meat grinder’ that is Bakhmut. NATO believed that at one point Wagner was suffering over a thousand casualties a day in the Donbas. Despite the vast casualties, the Russians were gradually taking control of the city. By January the Russians had control over the high ground on the southern flank of Bakhmut. By February they had the north. On March 8, Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin announced that his forces had captured all of eastern Bakhmut up to the river. By March the situation was critical and forced Ukraine to commit many more troops if they wanted to hold the line there. They decided to send the troops – a choice between holding Bakhmut and keeping and training troops in reserve for their summer counteroffensive. Since then Wagner has taken block by city block in the most intensive street fighting in Europe since World War II. 

Bakhmut’s significance is largely political and symbolic. Its only strategic value is that it is on the way to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk. There is little strategic value for Ukraine either – Ukraine might even have fared better in terms of casualties if it had withdrawn to the west where the terrain is better suited to defence. Compared with the battle of Vuhledar and other parts of the front during Russia’s winter offensive, Ukraine’s attrition ratio in Bakhmut is less favorable, and a smaller share of Russia’s casualties are from elite units – the casualties the Russians are taking are expendable prisoners. Though these troop losses do matter to Russia’s overall war effort, they are not as important as the loss of regular soldiers or the non-convict mobilised personnel. In the meat grinder of Bakhmut, the Russians are feeding the battle cheap prisoners while the Ukrainians are wasting their best soldiers who are needed for a counteroffensive. As the Russians have found out, it is easy to replace troops – but it is not easy to train those new troops. For each side, Bakhmut has become a symbol and neither side is giving in. As of writing, Wagner mercenaries control around 95% of Bakhmut, yet Ukraine still refuses to withdraw. Ukraine’s leadership is unwilling to give Russia any kind of victory which might bolster Russian morale, and it has chosen to continue defending Bakhmut.

3 thoughts on “Battle of Bakhmut”
  1. Hi Adrian, with the greatest of respect I suspect you are being progapandised by the jaundiced MSM. Naturally you are entitled to your opinions as I am to mine. I believe you exaggerate Russian losses; thousands of expendable prisoners; convict mercenaries etc etc. We understand from Col. Douglas MacGreggor that the Russians used Bakhmut/Artemivsk as a trap and baited the Ukrainians to their own slaughter. MacGreggor describes it as the greatest of military successes. NATO and the US are responsible for the 2014 coup against an elected Ukraine government to pursue their adventurism. Ukrainian infrastructure is utterly destroyed and idiotic obstinacy will see the beautiful city of Kiev in ruins. If there is any chance that the USA or Europe will send troops to fight Russians on the ground then I will review my opinion. If they don’t and I very much doubt they will, then they should surrender and negotiate peace with Russia. If they don’t they will be horribly defeated and Ukraine will cease to exist.

  2. Very well resourced and relevant article. Unfortunately, this will be loooong drawn-out and attritional to both sides whilst the US masters dictate their puppets to continue the devastation without any signs of diplomacy.

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