The Ukrainian-held town of Bakhmut has become a key battleground for Russia’s war in Ukraine. Russia claims to have encircled Ukraine’s forces there, although its own soldiers could be on the verge of a setback as a result of a rift between the Wagner Group and regular Russian army.
The Donbas settlement, which had a pre-war population of more than 70,000, has been reduced to rubble after more than seven months of intense fighting. Both the Kremlin and Kyiv are understood to have suffered major losses in the town.
Bakhmut’s neighbouring salt-mining town Soledar was captured by Russia in January 2023. While the two urban areas have been the focus of fighting in eastern Ukraine, they are said by Kyiv to be more symbolic than strategically important. But the town does sit on a North-South railway line and could give Russia control of two key highways.
It comes as both sides marked the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February. The conflict has become something of a stalemate since last autumn, with experts suggesting an outright victory for either side has become unlikely.
So, what is the latest news about Bakhmut - and where is the town located?
Why is there fighting in Bakhmut?
The exact reasons why Russia has targeted so much firepower at Bakhmut - as well as why Ukraine has been so desperate to defend it - are unknown.
Experts say the settlement has little strategic value, but has expended a lot of resources to hold it. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed not to retreat from the town as he eyes a possible way to exhaust a significant proportion of Russia’s combat-ready troops. It may also have allowed Ukraine to train up troops ahead of a spring offensive.
Meanwhile, the Wagner Group is believed to have sent thousands of its soldiers to their deaths in the city, as the Kremlin is likely to have made it an “immediate military objective” according to the UK MoD. US-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) has said the concentration of forces there has turned the battle into one that could change the face of the wider conflict, given it “severely degrade” Wagner’s best fighters.
One theory for why Russia has focused its efforts on Bakhmut is that, after Ukraine managed to advance hundreds of kilometres into Russian-held territory with a lightning offensive last autumn, Russia has been looking for a victory in the east - no matter the cost. Equally, Ukraine wants another good news story about how it has repelled Moscow - both to keep morale high at home, and erode support for Putin in Russia. US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin endorsed this view on Monday (6 March), saying that Bakhmut has “more of a symbolic value than … strategic and operational value”.
A related theory is that the town has become the obsession of Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin - a close ally of President Vladimir Putin. Having become increasingly irate with the failings of senior Moscow defence chiefs, he has sought to underline the importance of his mercenary fighting force to Russia’s war effort by taking Bakhmut. It was telling that on Saturday (4 March) he released a video from close to the Bakhmut frontlines at the same time as Russian defence chief Sergei Shoigu - one of the people he has been especially critical of - was inspecting troops nearby.
Another potential explanation is that control of Bakhmut would give Moscow’s troops the opportunity to disrupt Ukrainian supply lines and open up a route to the cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, which have become vital strongholds for Ukraine. Conquering the entire Donbas region became Vladimir Putin’s main war aim after he failed to take Kyiv last year, and Bakhmut’s fall has been described as a stepping stone towards that goal by Moscow officials.
What is the latest situation in Bakhmut?
The latest from Bakhmut is that Ukraine is still fighting to maintain control of the town. While it still faces the very real possibility that Bakhmut will fall, Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has warned his own troops could be on the verge of collapse if they do not receive any extra ammunition.
in a bizarre video update on Monday (6 March), Prigozhin suggested Russia could be on the verge of defeat as a result of a rift with Kremlin defence officials. “On 5 March, I wrote a letter to the commander of the SMO [’Special Military Operation’ - Russia’s euphemism for its war in Ukraine] grouping about the urgent need to allocate ammunition. On 6 March, at 8 am, my representative at the headquarters had his pass cancelled and was denied access,” Prigozhin said in a video posted on Telegram.
“If Wagner retreats from Bakhmut now, the whole front will collapse,” Prigozhin said. “The situation will not be sweet for all military formations protecting Russian interests.” He had previously spoken of how his troops had “encircled” Bakhmut.
In an intelligence report published on Tuesday (7 March), the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) suggested the battle for Bakhmut is eating up both Russian and Ukrainian resources.
“The Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut continues to degrade forces on both sides. Over the weekend, Ukrainian forces likely stabilised their defensive perimeter following previous Russian advances into the north of the town,” the MoD said. “A Russian strike destroyed a bridge over the only paved supply road into Bakhmut still under Ukrainian control. Muddy conditions are likely hampering Ukrainian resupply efforts as they increasingly resort to using unpaved tracks.
“Public disagreements between the Wagner Group and Russian Ministry of Defence over the allocation of munitions highlights the difficulty in sustaining the high levels of personnel and ammunition required to advance with their current tactics.”
On 4 March, the MoD said street fighting is now taking place, with Ukrainian forces surrounded on three sides. It said: “Ukrainian defence of the Donbas town of Bakhmut is under increasingly severe pressure, with intense fighting taking place in and around the city. Regular Russian Army and Wagner Group forces have made further advances into the northern suburbs of the city, which is now a Ukrainian-held salient (i.e. a piece of territory jutting out at an angle), vulnerable to Russian attacks on three sides.
“Ukraine is reinforcing the area with elite units, and within the last 36 hours two key bridges in Bakhmut have been destroyed, including a vital bridge connecting the city to the last main supply route from Bakhmut to the city of Chasiv Yar. Ukrainian-held resupply routes out of the town are increasingly limited.”
This assessment was echoed by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) - a Washington-based think tank - which said Ukraine appeared to be “setting conditions for a controlled fighting withdrawal” from the city. It said the “preemptive destruction” of the two bridges indicated that Ukraine could be aiming to “inhibit Russian movement in eastern Bakhmut” and limit any progress its troops can make westwards.
The ISW said previous reports from Ukrainian officials have suggested the country’s troops could retreat to fortifications situated to the West of the town. These positions could prevent Russia from taking the town entirely, even if ground troops withdraw.
While Bakhmut appears to remain in Ukrainian hands - at least for now - there is growing concern for an estimated 4,000 civilians trapped in and around the destroyed town. In an interview with the BBC, Bakhmut’s deputy mayor said they are living in shelters with no access to heating, power or running water.
According to the PA news agency, efforts are underway to help the town’s residents flee the fighting. Given the shelling of the last major route out of the settlement, civilians are having to espace on foot. On 4 March, a woman was killed and two men were badly injured by shelling whilst being helped out of Bakhmut by Ukrainian forces. Shelling is reportedly hitting neighbouring towns, including Chasiv Yar and Kostiantynivka.