Fall of Bakhmut would signal ‘a Pyrrhic victory for Wagner’

We speak to a Ukrainian military expert, serviceman and analysts on what the possible capture of Bakhmut means.

Russia's 10-month campaign to capture Bakhmut has reduced most of the city to ruins [File: Libkos/AP]

Kyiv, Ukraine – According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Bakhmut resembles Hiroshima after the 1945 nuclear bombing.

The ravaged southeastern city, home to about 70,000 people before the war broke out, has been reduced to ruins after a 10-month-long siege.

“Nothing alive left. All of the buildings have been ruined,” Zelenskyy told a meeting of the Group of Seven (G7) nations in Hiroshima on Sunday.

Hours earlier, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary group, announced a complete takeover of Bakhmut while Kyiv said it still had toeholds on the outskirts of the mining and university city.

If confirmed, Bakhmut’s capture would be Russia’s first military gain since the fall of Soledar, a much smaller town northeast of Bakhmut, in January.

Wagner group
In this image taken from video and released by the Prigozhin Press Service on May 20, 2023, Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, holds a Russian flag in front of his soldiers in Bakhmut, Ukraine [File: Prigozhin Press Service via AP]

However, the gain is more symbolic than strategic – especially given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes for a triumphant blitzkrieg in Ukraine in February 2022.

Bakhmut was seized mostly by Wagner’s forces, a group that largely consists of untrained inmates recruited from Russian prisons after regular Russian servicemen proved too disorganised, disheartened and poorly trained.

Wagner started human-wave assaults, called “meat marches”, in December. They were backed by massive, nearly round-the-clock artillery and mortar fire as well as air strikes.

A top Ukrainian military expert said Wagner has been bled dry by colossal losses of manpower and equipment in their slow, street-by-street advance.

“This is a Pyrrhic victory for Wagner,” Lieutenant General Ihor Romanenko, former deputy chief of the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces, told Al Jazeera.

“Prigozhin understands it too,” he said. “He just had to report a military-political result [to Putin], something apart from Soledar.”

A Ukrainian serviceman walks near residential buildings damaged by shelling in the frontline city of Bakhmut
A Ukrainian serviceman walks near residential buildings destroyed by shelling in the front-line city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region [File: Anatolii Stepanov / AFP]

Prigozhin reportedly made a personal pledge to Putin to seize Bakhmut, even though the city had lost its transport and logistical importance for Ukraine’s forces, which rerouted their supply lines last year.

Romanenko said Kyiv’s troops still control the hills near Bakhmut, preventing Russia’s advance towards the heavily fortified cities and towns of Chasiv Yar, Konstantinivka, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

United States President Joe Biden told the G7 that Russians had lost 100,000 servicemen there since the siege began in July – more than Bakhmut’s entire pre-war civilian population.

Russia lost five servicemen to Ukraine’s every one, a NATO source told CNN on Sunday.

Prigozhin said his mercenaries will retreat from Bakhmut in days.

They will hand over the city to regular Russian servicemen, he said, something that could prove problematic because they largely consist of recently mobilised men with poor training and low morale.

Ukraine has never divulged its military losses, but they were so severe that the White House urged Kyiv to leave Bakhmut in February, according to leaked US documents.

‘They want me back’

Some Ukrainian servicemen expressed doubts about their commanders and said they were forced to return to defending Bakhmut despite severe wounds.

“A bomb went off just metres away from me,” a Ukrainian serviceman who said he arrived in Kyiv for a “quick patch-up” and the christening of his son told Al Jazeera.

“I see double, I had five contusions, but they want me back,” he said on the condition of anonymity.

To his wife, his return to the front lines seems like an absolutely unnecessary sacrifice.

“Do they have to finish him off there? Why can’t they find someone younger, someone who hasn’t been wounded that many times?” she told Al Jazeera.

The takeover of Bakhmut seemed especially bitter after Ukraine started a surprising and successful counterattack there this month.

But the counterattack was apparently aimed at saving the remaining Ukrainian servicemen, a military analyst said.

“The goal has been achieved,” Nikolay Mitrokhin of Germany’s Bremen University told Al Jazeera. “The [city] has been abandoned.”

Bakhmut’s fall may delay a much bigger counteroffensive in the south, especially in the Zaporizhia region, where Kyiv had been amassing forces in recent weeks, he said.

The delay also has to do with the arrival of new Western weaponry, especially advanced German-made Leopard A1 tanks, he said.

Ukrainian forces “mostly likely won’t start an offensive in the south or elsewhere until they receive and test 80 Leopard A1 tanks that were pledged to them by June 1,” Mitrokhin said.

The delay may prove detrimental to the restoration of Ukraine’s economy, which shrank by almost a third last year and has barely started recovering, observers said.

Western governments and millions of refugees await the war’s end to pour aid in and return home.

“Naturally, if the [victory] date is delayed by years, there are almost no chances for development,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

Smoke rises from buildings in this aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine
Smoke rises from buildings in Bakhmut, site of the heaviest and longest battle with Russian forces of the Ukraine war [File: Libkos/AP]

Kremlin rejoicing

Despite what Zelenskyy said about the ruins of Bakhmut, to the Kremlin and its backers, it was not a Hiroshima.

It is not even Bakhmut because they persistently use the town’s Soviet-era name, Artyomovsk.

The Kremlin released a statement promising state awards to “all those who distinguished themselves”, and pro-war Russians competed to praise the “triumph”.

“Artyomovsk has been liberated. It’s a historic event,” a news host on Kremlin-controlled Channel One announced on Sunday. “The myth that Artyomovsk is an impregnable fortress has been destroyed.”

“The takeover opens a direct and short way towards” the eastern city of Dnipro,” the Russia 1 channel reported.

A few figures on Moscow’s side who dare contradict the Kremlin’s viewpoint do not consider Bakhmut’s takeover as a major event.

“The efforts wasted on Bakhmut’s takeover are incalculable,” Aleksandr Khodarovsky, a commander in the separatist-controlled “People’s Republic of Donetsk” wrote on Telegram on Sunday. “Bakhmut is no Berlin, and its fall doesn’t signify the war’s end.”

Another rebel warlord echoed Romanenko’s words about Russia’s “Pyrrhic” victory.

“It wasn’t even approximately worth the forces and funds spent on it,” Igor Girkin, a former defence minister in separatist-occupied Donetsk, said in a Telegram post.

Source: Al Jazeera