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War in Ukraine: huge losses, city in ruins… why are Russians and Ukrainians fighting around Bakhmut?

The battle of Bakhmut, a city bombarded since May, engulfed a large part of the Russian and Ukrainian armies: a terrible confrontation which is increasingly due to the symbolic importance of the city.

The town of Bakhmut, on the Donbass front line, has been the scene of a fierce struggle for months between Russians and Ukrainians . The battle, costly in men, only resulted in advances of barely a few tens of meters.

While the Ukraine multiplied the successes around Kharkiv and in Kherson, it was Russia which was on the offensive around the city of Bakhmut, including with the Wagner group. The pressure was such that President Zelensky called it the “most difficult” area for his army in October. The city did not fall, however, and is now largely destroyed.

An obsolete military objective

According to Cédric Mas, military historian, president of the Institut Action Résilience and lawyer at the bar of Marseille, “this battle in the vicinity of the city would concentrate more than half of the current losses on the front, although giving clear figures is obviously impossible”.

What gains can justify such losses? According to the military historian, “the battle for Bakhmut has been going on since the summer, and a long battle means a change of objective. Originally, the fighting around the city arose following the Russian breakthrough at Popasna. The capture of Bakhmut by the Russians would have called into question the Ukrainian system in the ‘salient’ of Kramatorsk”, an area of ​​heavy fighting for several months.

However, as Cédric Mas points out, “the Ukrainian counter-offensive towards Izium and Lyman destroyed the ‘salient’. The reason for the fighting is now rather symbolic, with the vital necessity of a Russian victory, in Bakhmut rather than elsewhere , since this is the only place collected units allow them to attack.”

A symbolic city for both sides

The Ukrainians, however, accept this Russian commitment, at the cost of heavy losses. “On the Ukrainian side, we can distinguish two aspects, judges the president of the Action Resilience Institute. There is already a form of counter-symbol which aims to deprive the adversary of a victory in Bakhmut. The city is becoming politically important. since the adversary considers it important. There is also the will not to give up an inch of ground. We have seen situations where the soldiers did not want to withdraw despite orders, so abandoning the city could be badly perceived ” , summarizes the expert in military strategy. 

Both sides therefore accept this battle, seen as a means of weakening the adversary. “The Russians are probably hoping to create a battle of attrition by trapping Ukraine in a costly struggle and preventing them from attacking elsewhere, believes Cédric Mas. We can judge that the Ukrainians have a similar approach on their side: it is for the moment impossible to know who will win.

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