Bakhmut latest: fight for Ukrainian city explained, as Ukraine gains ground from Russia in eight-month siege

The Donetsk town has become a key battleground in the Russia-Ukraine war, with Russian Wagner Group mercenaries aiming to capture the settlement

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Ukrainian forces in the hotly-contested eastern city of Bakhmut have secured an important logistics hub and 1.2 miles of territory this week, military commanders say.

Bakhmut has become a key battleground for Russia’s war in Ukraine, with fighting grinding on for eight months now. Ukraine officials say they have started to gain ground, securing an important bridgehead from Russian forces which they suspect would have been used to launch further attacks on a key supply chain.

It comes after the Russian mercenary army the Wagner Group claimed to have all but encircled Ukraine’s forces there, although Kyiv says it is still supplying its troops in the settlement.

It comes as a Ukrainian counter-offensive is believed to be imminent - although the location of where this push will take place is unknown. The conflict has been locked in a relative stalemate since autumn 2022 when Ukraine’s troops took back thousands of square kilometres of territory in its North East and retook the city of Kherson. The situation has remained stable despite a Russian spring offensive. Experts believe an outright victory for either side is now 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 city as he eyes a possible way to exhaust a significant proportion of Russia’s combat-ready troops - or at least to keep them pinned in Bakhmut so Ukraine can launch offensives elsewhere. The battle may also have allowed Ukraine to train up troops ahead of an expected spring offensive.

Bakhmut sits in the heavily contested Donetsk region of Ukraine (Credit: Kim Mogg/NationalWorld)Bakhmut sits in the heavily contested Donetsk region of Ukraine (Credit: Kim Mogg/NationalWorld)
Bakhmut sits in the heavily contested Donetsk region of Ukraine (Credit: Kim Mogg/NationalWorld)

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 in 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 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?

In a statement on Telegram on Friday (12 May), Ukraine deputy minister of defence Hanna Maliar confirmed that Ukrainian forces gained ground around the city.

The 1.2 miles of territory retaken by Ukrainian forces south of Bakhmut earlier this week represent a significant gain for Kyiv and will protect an important supply chain, according to the commanders of Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, a special forces unit that led the attack.

The two-kilometre gain was made near the Siversky-Donets canal, between the villages of Ivanivske and Kurdiumivka, said the commander of the 1st Assault Battalion of the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, which carried out the operation.

“This was the enemy’s bridgehead which they intended to use in their future attacks along the canal, in the direction of Kostiantynivka,” the commander, identified only by his callsign, Rollo, said. “We had to neutralize the enemy and push them to the other side of the canal.”

Kostiantynivka is part of an important logistics chain that leads to the city of Kramatorsk. However, Ukrainian military officials dismissed speculation that the fighting and forward movement in Bakhmut signalled that the much anticipated counter-offensive was under way.

The battle for Bakhmut may not involve Wagner Group fighters beyond 10 May, its boss has warned (image: AFP/Getty Images)The battle for Bakhmut may not involve Wagner Group fighters beyond 10 May, its boss has warned (image: AFP/Getty Images)
The battle for Bakhmut may not involve Wagner Group fighters beyond 10 May, its boss has warned (image: AFP/Getty Images)

Meanwhile Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin - a close-confidant of President Vladimir Putin - has also recently threatened to pull his mercenary army out of the town.

In a furious video statement, he said he would get his troops to retreat from the settlement due to a lack of ammunition and support from the regular Russian army. The footage also showed him standing in front of 30 bodies, which he claimed were the remains of Wagner fighters who died on Thursday (4 May).

“These are someone’s fathers and someone’s sons,” Prigozhin said, referencing the bodies. “The scum that doesn’t give us ammunition will eat their guts in hell.

“Wagner ran out of resources to advance in early April, but we’re advancing despite the fact that the enemy’s resources outnumber ours fivefold,” Prigozhin’s added. “Because of the lack of ammunition, our losses are growing exponentially every day.”

The Wagner Group boss said he would retreat on 10 May and have Russia’s regular army take over, “because without ammunition, [Wagner fighters] are doomed to a senseless death”. He accused “jealous military bureaucrats” of denying him ammunition. It is not the first time the Wagner Group boss has fallen out with the regular Russian army. He has been a frequent critic of Russian defence chief Sergei Shoigu.

Prigozhin had previously said he planned to take Bakhmut in its entirety by 9 May - a major holiday date in Russia, which marks the defeat of Nazi Germany in the Second World War. But the Putin ally had also warned he expected a Ukrainian counterattack in mid-May given weather conditions have been improving.

Bakhmut has been almost completely destroyed after nine months of fighting (image: AFP/Getty Images)Bakhmut has been almost completely destroyed after nine months of fighting (image: AFP/Getty Images)
Bakhmut has been almost completely destroyed after nine months of fighting (image: AFP/Getty Images)

This came after Ukraine claimed to have retaken part of the town from the Wagner Group on 30 April. One of the country’s top generals Oleksandr Syrskyi said: "The situation is quite difficult. At the same time, in certain parts of the city, the enemy was counterattacked by our units and left some positions." He added that Kyiv was still able to resupply its troops in the town, while Russia was struggling to gain control despite its units, including paratroopers and mercenaries, being "constantly thrown into battle".

It is understood Moscow has been sending inexperienced troops into battle ahead of more experienced soldiers in a bid to overwhelm Ukrainian troops. But the tactic has led to major losses on both sides. In an assessment of the situation in the town as of 27 April, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) - a Washington-based think tank - said Russian troops are being redeployed to the Bakhmut area.

It has geolocated photographic evidence published on Russian media channels which suggests Moscow’s forces are close to capturing the entire town. The ISW findings appear to give some credence to claims made on Saturday (29 April) by Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin that his forces now hold more than 90% of Bakhmut.