After weeks of brutal battle steadily wore down an unyielding Ukrainian opposition, Russian soldiers are inching closer and closer to taking the city of Bakhmut.
Bakhmut is a relatively small town in eastern Donetsk that has been out of reach of Russia’s plodding ground assault for many months, which is not the kind of city Moscow had hoped to be fighting for in the second year of its invasion.
Yet, if it were taken, Russian President Vladimir Putin would have made some military progress and would have given his army the chance to conduct aerial assaults on more western major centers.
Here’s what you need to know about the battle for Bakhmut.
Ukraine’s biggest challenge at this moment is defending Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly video message Tuesday.
Russian forces have been making incremental gains around the city, but Ukrainian forces are yet to retreat, creating a standoff that recalls drawn-out battles for other eastern cities such as Severodonetsk over the past year.
On Saturday, Land Forces of Ukraine said on its Telegram channel that “the enemy keeps trying to break through the defenses and take Bakhmut” and that the commander of Ukraine’s Eastern Military Group, Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrskyi, had visited units that are defending the city and its approaches.
Alexander Rodnyansky, an economic adviser to Zelenksy, told CNN on Tuesday that “the situation is difficult. There is no secret about that.”
“Russia is trying to encircle it right now and they’re using their best Wagner troops, apparently, the most well trained and experienced,” the adviser added. “Our military is obviously going to weigh all of the options. So far, you know, they’ve held the city, but, if need be, they will strategically pull back because we’re not going to second guess all of our people just for nothing.”
The Ukrainian military has also confirmed that Russian forces are employing more experienced fighters from the ranks of the Russian private military company Wagner as they attempt to capture the town.
There are still around 4,500 civilians in Bakhmut, including 48 children, as Russian forces continue to advance on the city, the spokeswoman for the Ukrainian Donetsk regional military administration Tetiana Ignatchenko told CNN on Wednesday.
She called on people to evacuate the city due to the danger but said they had enough supplies.
“There is food, water and medicine in the city. People were provided with everything in advance,” Ignatchenko said. “Still, everyone has to leave. The situation is extremely dangerous for civilians.
A soldier from Ukraine’s 93th Brigade says his country’s forces are still standing in Bakhmut, with no plans for a retreat.
“We are standing in Bakhmut. No one is going to retreat yet,” the soldier said a video posted by the Ukrainian military on Wednesday. “We are standing. Bakhmut is Ukraine.”
The soldier also claimed the situation in Bakhmut was a bit calmer than in previous days.
“We have muffled the enemy down a little bit. It’s a little calmer, but there are still gunfights on the outskirts,” he said. “There are isolated explosions, bombs are flying.”
But Ukrainian troops have acknowledged that it is becoming harder to hold onto the city as the routes in from the west are squeezed by Russian forces, who have advanced both to the north and south of Bakhmut.
“The situation in Bakhmut is very difficult now. It is much worse than officially reported,” a soldier who didn’t want to be named told CNN on Tuesday. “In all directions. Especially in the northern direction, where the (Russians) have made the biggest advance between Berkhivka and Yahidne.”
The city sits towards the northeast of the Donetsk region, about 13 miles from Luhansk region, and has been a target for Russian forces for months. Since last summer the city has been a stone’s throw from the front lines, so its capture would represent a long sought-after success for Moscow’s forces – and bring some limited strategic value.
The city has important road connections to other parts of the Donetsk region; eastwards to the border with Luhansk, north-west to Sloviansk and south-west to Kostiantynivka.
For several weeks the routes into Bakhmut have gradually come under the control of Russian forces. Rather than drive directly towards the city center, Wagner groups have sought to encircle the city in a wide arc from the north. In January they claimed the nearby town of Soledar, and have since taken a string of villages and hamlets north of Bakhmut.
If the Russians can take the high ground to the west of the city, nearby industrial towns Kostiantynivka and Kramatorsk would be at the mercy of their artillery and even longer range mortars. And it is unclear where exactly Ukrainian forces would fall back to should they retreat from the city.
But experts say capturing Bakhmut is unlikely to dramatically alter the overall picture of the war in eastern Ukraine, where little territory has changed hands in 2023. And it would in some ways signal the overriding failures of Russia’s invasion that, early in its second year, the capture of a relatively small city has required such a long and costly assault.
While Bakhmut’s strategic importance should not be overstated, its capture could still carry a very welcome symbolic impact for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
When Russian troops took the town of Soledar in mid-January, it marked a first gain in the Donbas for months. Six weeks on, the capture of Bakhmut would represent the completion of the next step.
It matters too to oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs the Wagner group and has frequently criticized the Russian Defense Ministry’s management of the “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine.
His Wagner fighters, many of them former prison inmates, have taken heavy casualties in what has become a battlefield of trenches and mud, reminiscent of World War I. After months in which the Russian Ministry of Defense delivered nothing but retreat, Prigozhin has been keen to show his men can deliver with the seizure of Soledar and now Bakhmut.
Nonetheless, urgent questions will remain for Putin even if his forces pull off a successful assault on Bakhmut.
“The specter of limitless Russian manpower is a myth. Putin has already been forced to make difficult and suboptimal choices to offset the terrible losses his war has inflicted on the Russian military, and he will face similarly difficult choices in 2023 if he persists in his determination to use military force to impose his will on Ukraine and the West,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank wrote on Sunday in an update on the state of Russian forces and firepower.
“Russia can mobilize more manpower, and Putin will likely do so rather than give up. But the costs to Putin and Russia of the measures he will likely need to take at this point will begin to mount rapidly,” the ISW wrote.