KYIV, Ukraine — The nine-month battle for Bakhmut has destroyed the 400-year-old city in eastern Ukraine and killed tens of thousands of people in a mutually devastating demonstration of Ukraine’s strategy of exhausting the Russian military.
The fog of war made it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground Sunday in the invasion’s longest battle: Russia’s defense ministry reported that the Wagner private army backed by Russian troops had seized the city. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, meanwhile, said Bakhmut was not being fully occupied by Russian forces.
Regardless, the small city has long had more symbolic than strategic value for both sides. The more meaningful gauge of success for Ukrainian forces has been their ability to keep the Russians bogged down. The Ukrainian military has aimed to deplete the resources and morale of Russian troops in the tiny but tactical patch of the 1,500-kilometer (932-mile) front line as Ukraine gears up for a major counteroffensive in the 15-month-old war.
“Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said Col.-Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, the Commander of Ground Forces for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. “This gives us the opportunity to enter the city in case of a change in the situation. And it will definitely happen.”
About 55 kilometers (34 miles) north of the Russian-held regional capital of Donetsk, Bakhmut was an important industrial center, surrounded by salt and gypsum mines and home to about 80,000 people before the war, in a country of more than 43 million.
The city, named Artyomovsk after a Bolshevik revolutionary when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, was known for its sparkling wine produced in underground caves. It was popular among tourists for its broad tree-lined avenues, lush parks and stately downtown with imposing late 19th century mansions. All are now reduced to a smoldering wasteland.
Fought over so fiercely by Russia and Ukraine in recent months has been the urban center itself, where Ukrainian commanders have conceded that Moscow controlled more than 90%. But even now, Ukrainian forces are making significant advances near strategic roads through the countryside just outside, chipping away at Russia’s northern and southern flanks by the meter (yard) with the aim of encircling Wagner fighters inside the city.
“The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut. They lost part of the heights around the city. The continuing advance of our troops in the suburbs greatly complicates the enemy’s presence,” said Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister. “Our troops have taken the city in a semi-encirclement, which gives us the opportunity to destroy the enemy.”
Ukrainian military leaders say their months-long resistance has been worth it because it limited Russia’s capabilities elsewhere and allowed for Ukrainian advances.
“The main idea is to exhaust them, then to attack,” Ukrainian Col. Yevhen Mezhevikin, commander of a specialized group fighting in Bakhmut, said Thursday.
Russia has deployed reinforcements to Bakhmut to replenish lost northern and southern flanks and prevent more Ukrainian breakthroughs, according to Ukrainian officials and other outside observers. Russian President Vladimir Putin badly needs to claim victory in Bakhmut city, where Russian forces have focused their efforts, analysts say, especially after a winter offensive by his forces failed to capture other cities and towns along the front.
Some analysts said that even Ukraine’s tactical gains in the rural area outside urban Bakhmut could be more significant than they seem.
“It was almost like the Ukrainians just took advantage of the fact that, actually, the Russian lines were weak,” said Phillips O’Brien, a professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews. “The Russian army has suffered such high losses and is so worn out around Bakhmut that … it cannot go forward anymore.”
Ukrainian forces in the outskirts of Bakhmut and in the city bore relentless artillery attacks until a month ago. Then, Ukrainian forces positioned south of the city spotted their chance for a breakthrough after reconnaissance drones showed the southern Russian flank had gone on the defensive, Col. Mezhevikin said.
After fierce fighting for weeks, Ukrainian units had made their first advance in the vicinity of Bakhmut since it was invaded nine months ago.
In all, nearly 20 square kilometers (eight square miles) of territory were recaptured, Maliar said in an interview last week. Hundreds of meters (yards) more have been regained almost every day since, according to Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesman for Ukraine’s Operational Command East.
“Previously we were only holding the lines and didn’t let Russians advance further into our territory. What has happened now is our first advance (since the battle started),” Maliar said.
Victory in Bakhmut does not necessarily bring Russia any closer to capturing the Donetsk region — Putin’s stated aim of the war. Rather, it opens the door to more grinding battles in the direction of Sloviansk or Kostiantynivka, 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, said Kateryna Stepanenko, a Russia analyst at the U.S.-based think tank Institute for the Study of War.
Satellite imagery released this week shows infrastructure, apartment blocks and iconic buildings reduced to rubble.
In the last week, days before Russia announced that the city had fallen into their control, Ukrainian forces retained only a handful of buildings amid constant Russian bombardment. Outnumbered and outgunned, they described nightmarish days.
Russia’s artillery dominance is so overwhelming, accompanied by continuous human waves of mercenaries, that defensive positions could not be held for long.
“The importance of our mission of staying in Bakhmut lies in distracting a significant enemy force,” said Taras Deiak, a commander of a special unit of a volunteer battalion. “We are paying a high price for this.”
The northern and southern flanks regained by Ukraine are located near two highways that lead to Chasiv Yar, a town 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Bakhmut that serves as a key logistics supply route, one dubbed the “road of life.”
Ukrainian forces passing this road often came under fire from Russians positioned along nearby strategic heights. Armored vehicles and pickup trucks driving toward the city to replenish Ukrainian troops were frequently destroyed.
With the high plains now under Ukrainian control, its forces have more breathing room.
“This will help us design new logistic chains to deliver ammunition in and evacuate the injured or killed boys,” said Deiak, speaking from inside the city on Thursday, two days before Russia claimed it controlled the city. “Now it is easier to deliver supplies, rotate troops, (carry out) evacuations.”
Danica Kirka in London contributed to this report.