Sunday Times: Why Ukraine’s defence of Bakhmut matters

    WORLD  26 March 2023 - 18:16

    Sunday Times has published an article where it says that a place once known for wine and roses is enduring the fiercest fighting of the war and Ukraine is losing up to 200 troops a day. Caliber.Az reprints the article.

    For Kristina Savchenko, Bakhmut will always be the city of roses, salt and sparkling wine. Yet, in the eyes of the world, her home in the Donbas region of Ukraine is known for something much darker: some of the fiercest fighting Europe has endured since the Second World War.

    Nine months into the Battle of Bakhmut, it has been almost entirely flattened and 90 per cent of its pre-war population of 70,000 have fled. But Ukrainian forces are still clinging on, despite losing an estimated 100-200 soldiers a day.

    On Thursday, President Zelenskyy visited military positions near the city to bestow honours on the defenders. He has previously said that giving up Bakhmut would leave an “open road” for President Putin to seize the rest of Donbas. But some western analysts, and Ukrainian commentators, have started to question the decision to stay in the city instead of falling back to one of the fortified lines that Kyiv’s troops have built to the west.

     Closing in

    What is at stake in Bakhmut? And how did this city, once famed for its underground sparkling wine factory, attain totemic importance in this war?

    Idyll before the conflict

    My first impressions of Bakhmut were of a quiet city — clean and proud of the rose-lined boulevard that stretched down the hill from the railway station towards the river.

    The sun and the silence were interrupted by Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, a hit that summer, blasting on repeat from Khutorok, the Cossack-themed karaoke bar at the bottom of the hill.

    “It’s the town of roses, absolutely,” said Savchenko, who now lives with her boyfriend, Kirill, hundreds of miles away in the city of Stryi in the Lviv region, after fleeing last April. “A town created by the people for the people — each area has its own park or square where people can relax and meet.”

    Savchenko and I met five years ago in the mainly Russian-speaking town. I had been invited by a Ukrainian charity to stage a play about Bakhmut with local volunteers.

    She was one of them. We worked together on two theatre projects in 2017 and 2019, before I trained as a journalist and three years before the full-scale invasion.

    Watching the destruction of her home from a distance is surreal and galling. “It’s difficult, it’s really horrible,” she said. “You just live your life as if everything is normal and then you happen upon a video from the town now and see that it’s been crushed entirely.”

    Savchenko is trying to keep alive in her memory the city as it was before the war: how the heat hit you as you emerged from the cool of the Artemivske sparkling wine factory on a summer’s day, or the feeling of 200 metres of salt below your feet in the Soledar salt mines. It is not easy.

    A tale of two cities

    In the 18th century, Bakhmut was a fortress on the fringes of Peter the Great’s Russian empire. The Soviets renamed the city Artemivsk in 1924 after Fyodor Sergeyev, otherwise known as “Comrade Artem”, a Bolshevik revolutionary and close friend of Stalin, who died testing the Aerowagon — a high-speed railway car fitted with an aircraft engine.

    Today an empty podium stands in the town’s central square where the statue of Comrade Artem used to be: a reminder that the battle for Bakhmut has been fought for nine years, not nine months.

    In 2014, after Viktor Yanukovich, then Ukraine’s president, fled following the Euromaidan Revolution, protests erupted in some Donbas towns with significant pro-Russian populations. Artemivsk was one of them. As a schoolgirl Savchenko, 27, remembers watching with trepidation when protesters raised the Russian flag over their town hall. Two months later separatist thugs seized control of the local government for one long, surreal summer.

    By February 2016 the city was back under Ukrainian control and the parliament in Kyiv changed the name of Artemivsk back to Bakhmut, as part of President Poroshenko’s “decommunisation” programme. The statue of Artem was taken down.

    Putin cited the decommunisation policy as one of the motives underpinning his decision to order troops into separatist-controlled parts of the Donbas on February 21 last year. He used it as evidence that Ukraine was hell-bent on destroying Russian culture.

    “You want decommunisation? That suits us fine. But don’t stop halfway. We’re ready to show Ukraine what real decommunisation means for it,” said Putin, implying that without communism the country itself would not exist. Three days later he invaded the rest of Ukraine.

    Target of mercenaries

    Conquering what remains of Bakhmut would be the biggest symbolic victory enjoyed by the Russians since the earliest days of the war.

    But how exactly the Russians try to accomplish that — and which forces get the glory — has emerged as a crucial subplot to the battle.

    The fight for the city has become particularly identified with the Wagner Group, a Russian shadow army of mercenaries known for its brutality and for its commanders’ disregard for the lives of their troops, whose ranks include thousands of released convicts.

    The organisation is led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former petty criminal who became a catering entrepreneur, an associate of Putin and a warlord. His forces have done much of the fighting in Bakhmut since the autumn and Prighozin has made numerous on-camera appearances from the frontlines — either to boast about the imminent capture of the city that he still refers to as Artyomovsk (its former Russian name), or to berate the defence establishment in Moscow for not supplying him with the resources to finish the job.

    In one rant, Prigozhin said ammunition shortages had forced his men to charge Ukrainian trenches armed with shovels designed in the 19th century.

    “If you pick a place on the map and go hell for leather at it, it assumes an importance of its own,” said Professor Michael Clarke, a distinguished fellow at the Royal United Services Institute. Bakhmut “matters to the Russians because Prigozhin has made it into a target. He’s invested so much in it, and the Wagner Group have invested so much in it that they now cannot be seen to fail.”

    Ukraine claims that 30,000 of Wagner’s 50,000 troops have deserted or been killed since the start of the war, many around Bakhmut. Their commanders were still hurling them at the Ukrainian positions anyway, Clarke added. “They are losing 60-70 per cent of their troops in every attack and they don’t care.”

    The US think tank the Institute for the Study of War has suggested that Putin’s military leadership might be deliberately expending Wagner forces in Bakhmut to weaken Prigozhin’s position as a future political rival.

    Ukraine’s desperate defence

    The Ukrainians are taking heavy casualties too. The bulk of the fighting is taking place in trenches in the forests, fields and hamlets that surround the city.

    llia Kascheiev, 26, a marksman-medic, was wounded in February on the outskirts of Bakhmut when his position was bombarded for five hours by Russian drones, mortars and grenades. A shockwave concussed him so that he “couldn’t hear and could hardly see.” He is now recovering in Kyiv. Three of his squad have already died in Bakhmut, one of them in his arms. Within a week he could be back on the frontline. “We have to hold the town, however terrifying or painful it is,” he said.

    Earlier this month Zelenskyy said that the defence of Bakhmut remained a “tactical” priority for Ukraine because if it fell, the Russians “could go further” and surge into the heart of Ukraine.

    His general staff must continually weigh whether they can justify the spiralling cost in Ukrainian lives to protect the more obvious strategic targets of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, each around 30 miles to the north west and with pre-war populations almost double that of Bakhmut.

    Kramatorsk, with a rail depot that supplies a large share of Ukraine’s front-line forces in the east, would be an especially rich prize for Moscow.

    Ukraine could pull back to robust defensive lines west of Bakhmut, where they have strong positions along a series of ridges, looking down on ground that will be wet until the summer.

    But according to Clarke there is a brutal mathematical logic to Ukraine’s stubborn determination to hold the city for as long as possible. For each Ukrainian soldier killed in Bakhmut, Kyiv estimates that eight Russians die, Clarke said. (Nato puts the figure at “more like five to one”).

    The Ukrainians are surrounded on three sides, but while the Russians have moved into the centre of the city, they are unable to cross the river without taking a wide detour or even heavier casualties.

    As long as the T0504 road to the southwest remains a viable route for Ukrainians to withdraw, their forces appear likely to stay in the city for as long as they can keep inflicting heavy losses on their enemy.

    Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukrainian forces in the east, said yesterday that Bakhmut remained the “epicentre” of the fighting, though Russian attacks have decreased from 30-50 a day to 18, largely due to the heavy losses they are incurring.

    Hope for recovery amid the ruins

    Irina Vereshchuk, the deputy prime minister, said this month that as many as 4,000 civilians, including 38 children, were still living in Bakhmut in unimaginable conditions.

    Halyna Liutikova, an army medic who travelled in and out of Bakhmut during the winter, said: “When I went to Bakhmut, I thought this is where I will see what war is. But in Bakhmut what I saw was life.”

    Amid the rubble she found children and elderly people, even shops scraping a living while bullets whistled between Ukrainian and Russian positions.

    “I don’t mean in a bad way, but people are like cockroaches, you can’t sweep them away. People are so alive, so adaptable to whatever the world throws at us that we can live right in the line of fire even in Bakhmut: where it’s trench warfare, it’s the first world war,” said Liutikova.

    Relatives of Savchenko were among those to stay in the city. In February, their home was seized by Wagner forces and they are now in a “filtration camp” in Russian-occupied Donetsk.

    Despite the destruction of so many of the places she grew up with, Savchenko is determined to return to Bakhmut to help resurrect it. And, despite the destruction of so many of the places that she grew up with, she is determined to return to Bakhmut to help resurrect it. She has offered me a tour of the sparkling wine factory, founded in 1950 during Stalin’s drive for “Soviet Champagne” — premium bubbly for the proletariat to rival the French..

    “It was the best town there is, and after the war it will be even better, we will rebuild it all and all will be well. It will be beautiful and green and Ukrainian.”


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