Battle of Bakhmut: a ‘pyrrhic victory’ for Russia?

Victory for Russian forces in Ukrainian ‘meatgrinder’ more symbolic than strategic

Ukrainian forces move towards Bakhmut on 20 May, 2023
Ukraine says its forces are still advancing around Bakhmut
(Image credit: Sergey Shestak/AFP via Getty Images)

It is still unclear whether the months-long battle for control of Bakhmut has ended, with claims by Moscow that the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group had finally captured the city being countered by Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“The meat grinder, hell on earth, the fortress, a blackened nightmare, and now Europe’s Hiroshima. Bakhmut has been called many things over the course of its nine-and-a-half month siege,” said The Telegraph, but “few descriptions capture the scale of loss and destruction”.

The small 400-year-old city in eastern Ukraine “has undoubtedly been the site of the bloodiest fighting since Vladimir Putin invaded”, said the paper, and is now “the longest battle since the Second World War”.

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‘A pyrrhic victory’

US intelligence believes Russia has suffered about 100,000 casualties around the city since December last year, with 20,000 fatalities representing more than half of all Russians thought to have been killed in Ukraine since the invasion began.

The Times reported that “both sides have built up the symbolic significance of the battle”, and the Wagner Group “has sought victory as a propaganda boost for Yevgeny Prigozhin, its founder and chief, and the Kremlin”.

Yet while “Bakhmut is not of no strategic value”, said Sky News, “its worth as a conquest is limited – in that context, its capture for Russia is a pyrrhic victory”.

For Ukrainian forces “the more meaningful gauge of success” has been “their ability to keep the Russians bogged down”, said ABC News. “The Ukrainian military has aimed to deplete the resources and morale of Russian troops in the tiny but tactical patch of the 1,500-kilometre (932-mile) front line as Ukraine gears up for a major counteroffensive in the 15-month-old war.”

The battle also provides “a telling example of how Ukraine hopes to exploit the very public divisions among the three principal Russian forces fighting in Bakhmut: the Wagner private military company, loyal to Yevgeny Prigozhin, Chechen militias loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov and the regular army”, reported The New York Times.

‘Unlikely to be a turning point’

“This is a significant moment in this war,” said Sky News, “but not for the reason that Moscow will present. Yes, it has won but this massive battle is only really a small victory.”

First, “victory in Bakhmut does not necessarily bring Russia any closer to capturing the Donetsk region – Putin’s stated aim of the war”, ABC News reported.

More importantly, it has laid bare the huge cost in terms of resources and lives lost to the Kremlin of Ukraine’s strategy of draining Russia’s war machine. The battle’s brutal impact on wearing down Russian soldiers and Wagner mercenaries has led to comparisons to the bloody conflict between the German Wehrmacht and Red Army at Stalingrad, which turned the tide of the Second World War in favour of the Allies.

“For all the fanfare from the Wagner paramilitary group, the capture of Bakhmut is unlikely to be a turning point in this war,” said Sky News – “it will almost certainly not be decisive”.

The focus now turns to Ukraine’s expected counter-offensive, the success or failure of which “is far more likely to have an effect on how this terrible conflict eventually ends”, concluded the broadcaster.

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