KIEV, March 7 (AP) — The six-month battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is the longest and bloodiest war yet.
Little known outside Ukraine before the Russian invasion, Bahmut has become a symbol of the country’s resilience in the face of the Kremlin’s onslaught.
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Ukrainian leaders vowed again this week to keep defending the city, but some observers have warned that holding out could be too dangerous and costly.
Here’s Bakhmut, the battle and its likely aftermath.
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What kind of city is BAKHMUT?
Bakhmut, with a pre-war population of more than 70,000, was an important center for salt and gypsum mining in the Donetsk region of Donbas, the country’s industrial heartland.
The city is also known for producing sparkling wine in historic underground caves. Wide tree-lined avenues, lush parks and a stately city center with magnificent late 19th-century architecture make it a popular tourist attraction.
A separatist insurgency swept through Donbass in April 2014, weeks after Moscow illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula, with Russian-backed separatists winning control of the city but months later. Then lost it.
How did the combat evolve?
Russian forces first attempted to retake Bakhmut in early August but were delayed.
Fighting eased over the next few months as Russian forces faced a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east and south, but resumed in full force late last year.
In January, the Russians captured the salt mining town of Soledar, a few kilometers (miles) north of Bakhmut, and advanced on the city’s outskirts.
Relentless Russian bombing has turned Bachmut into a smoldering wasteland, with few buildings still standing. Russian and Ukrainian soldiers fought bloody house-to-house amid the rubble.
Soldiers of Russia’s private Wagner Group contractors led the attack, marching over, as Ukrainian officials put it, “the corpses of their own army”.
By the end of February, the Russians were closing in on the only highway out of the city and targeting it with artillery, forcing Ukrainian defenders to increasingly rely on country roads that were difficult to use until the ground dried up.
What are Ukrainian and Russian officials saying about the fight?
Ukrainian authorities have hailed the city as the invincible “fortress Bakhmut” that smashed waves of Russian attackers.
With the Russian pincers closing in on the city, a presidential aide warned last week that the military could “retreat strategically” if needed.
But on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his top generals decided that the military would continue to defend Bakhmut and reinforce it there.
For the Kremlin, capturing Bahmut is crucial to achieving its stated goal of controlling all of Donetsk, one of four Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed in September.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday that capturing Bakhmut would allow Russia to launch an offensive deeper into the region.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, the rogue millionaire who owns the Wagner Group, has accused his troops of destroying the best Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut to prevent them from attacking elsewhere.
At the same time, his comments sharply criticized the Russian Ministry of Defense for failing to supply Wagner with ammunition, reflecting his long-standing tension with military top brass and exposing problems that could slow a Russian offensive.
What do the experts say?
Military experts pointed out that Ukraine has turned Bakhmut into a meat grinder for Russia’s most capable troops.
Lord Richard Dennett, former chief of staff of the British Armed Forces, told Sky News: “It has achieved its purpose, it has effectively become an anvil that has destroyed many Russian lives.”
Phillips P. O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, said the battle of Bakhmut “confirms that Russian forces are still struggling with basic operations”.
He noted that the Kremlin’s continued emphasis on land-grabbing regardless of losses means that “Russia’s strategic goals are bleeding Russian troops a lot.”
While Ukrainian and Western officials point to Russian combat losses being far higher than Ukraine’s, some observers believe Bakhmut’s defense is diverting Ukrainian resources from a counteroffensive planned for later in the spring.
Michael Koffman, director of Russia studies at CAN, a Washington-based think tank, observed that Ukrainian defenders “achieve a great deal at the expense of Russia’s manpower and ammunition,” but added that Ukraine might be wise to keep its troops alive future offensive operations.
“The strategy may reach a point of diminishing returns,” which could hinder the success of more important operations, given that Ukraine “is trying to conserve resources for offense,” he said.
Ukrainian and Western officials have stressed that a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut would not be strategic or change the course of the conflict.
The Ukrainian military has strengthened its defenses east of Bakhmut to hold off a Russian advance should Ukrainian troops eventually withdraw from the city.
The nearby town of Chasiv Yar, perched on a hill a few kilometers to the west, could become the next bulwark against the Russians. Further west are Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, the heavily fortified Ukrainian stronghold of Donetsk.
Even if the Russian military were to attempt an offensive in Donetsk, it would need to maintain significant contingents in other parts of the Donbass and in the southern Zaporozhye region where Ukrainian forces are widely expected to launch the next counteroffensive. (Associated Press)
(This is an unedited and auto-generated story from a Syndicated News feed, the content body may not have been modified or edited by LatestLY staff)