Why is ‘meat grinder’ Bakhmut so crucial for Russia in Ukraine war

Moscow wants to capture the city to give a ‘success story’ to its public after a string of battlefield losses

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has describedit as “the most difficult area” in the offensive by Russia. An expert has dubbed it the “Stalingrad” of Ukraine. And yet another has called it the “meat grinder” in a war that has raged for nearly 10 months.

So what makes Bakhmut such a crucial front in the Ukraine war? And why is Russia putting in so many resources to capture a small city that “would have limitedoperational value”? 

For the uninitiated, Bakhmut is located on a strategic supply line between Donetsk and Luhansk, the two separatist-held regions in Ukraine’s Donbass region, which Russia claimed to have annexed a few months ago.

Experts agree that the capture of Bakhmut could potentially change the course of the conflict and give Russia a platform to launch a broader campaign across many parts of Ukraine.

Even more importantly, Bakhmut, a word with a Turkic origin, which literally means steppe horse, has now become a prestige issue for Moscow, according to Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasia analyst.

After the “painful experience” of losing Kherson – the only regional capital Russia had managed to capture in its Ukraine offensive – and facing drone attacks deep inside its territory, Moscow is eager for a success story it can showcase to its public, Yalinkilicli says.

Bakhmut is a crucial location between Donetsk and Luhansk, the two separatist regions since 2014 in eastern Ukraine.
Bakhmut is a crucial location between Donetsk and Luhansk, the two separatist regions since 2014 in eastern Ukraine.
(Elif Cansın Senol / TRTWorld)

“A Russian defeat might lead to other potential losses across the Donbass region. The Russians might even lose Donetsk to Ukraine,” says Yalinkilicli. On the other hand, if the Ukrainians force Russia to withdraw from areas around the city, it might give them much confidence to reclaim other Russian-controlled regions in the east. 

Yalinkilicli also draws attention to the fact that the notorious Wagner Group’s mercenaries are actively participating in the Bakhmut fighting. “It is a clear sign of how much Russia gives importance to Bakhmut’s capture,” he says. 

Bakhmut’s capture might also open the Russian military’s path to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two important industrial centres of Ukraine in the energy-rich Donbass region. Slowly feeling the effects of the sweeping western sanctions, Russia needs industrial output while seeking to deprive Ukraine of natural and economic resources. 

Russian speakers are in the majority in Donetsk and Luhansk, and there is a general feeling that if Moscow can not hold onto these areas, it’s much less likely that Russia can keep other Ukrainian regions, according to the expert. 

In troubling signs, Russia has seen its hold on the Donbass region – which holds 92.4 percent of Ukrainian coal reserves – significantly diminish in recent months, from 65 percent at the start of the offensive to about half of the region, the analyst says citing official Russian data. 

‘A pivotal battle’

As the brutal winter sets over Europe, experts say the war has entered a critical moment, and the outcome of the offensive for Bakhmut will potentially determine what is to come afterwards. 

Gregory Simons, an associate professor at the Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Uppsala University, also believes that Bakhmut might be “a pivotal battle” in the war.

“It is a meat grinder that shall wear one of the armies down, the one that emerges from this on top may well have the upper hand on the battlefield,” Simons tells TRT World.

Simons compares the trench warfare of Bakhmut to the brutal battlefields of WWII – like the Battle of Stalingrad, which played a crucial role in determining the end result. According to Simons, whichever side has more determination and nerves will eventually decide the outcome of the Bakhmut fighting. 

A Ukrainian soldier tries to survive in the trench-lines of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine in November 2022.
A Ukrainian soldier tries to survive in the trench-lines of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine in November 2022.
(Wikipedia Commons)

Yalinkilicli says that for Russia, facing a deteriorating military situation in Ukraine, just trying to pass the winter and keeping the annexed Ukrainian regions under its control is its “main war strategy now”. 

On the other hand, Ukraine aims to accelerate its counteroffensive, using the newly arrived western military arsenal to recapture more territory from Moscow. But Russians have recently targeted much of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, damaging its significant portions. 

As a result, the winter will be brutal for both sides, he says. Russia is losing 50 to 70 soldiers every day in Bakhmut, experts say, adding that both sides are facing heavy casualties. 

Ukrainians and Russians describe the intense fighting around Bakhmut as unseen since the beginning of Moscow’s offensive on Kiev in February. 

The city has no water, electricity or gas, turning into a ghost town. Much of the city’s population has already left Bakhmut, and a few residents left in the town seem to blame both sides for their suffering. 

In the past, the city had significantly suffered, changing many hands from Nazis during WWII to the Red Army of the Soviets. In 2014, pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass region also captured the city briefly. 

Source: TRT World

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