- Russia claimed victory over Bakhmut after a monthlong battle over the eastern Ukrainian city.
- But experts have said even if that’s true, the area provides little to no strategic advantage.
- Now, Russia will have to expend resources in the city while also preparing for Ukraine’s counterattack.
The monthslong battle in Bakhmut may have reached a turning point this weekend as Russia claimed to have captured the eastern Ukrainian city.
But the area was long considered by military experts to be tactically insignificant terrain, and analysts now say that Ukraine might have an advantage if Russia has to expend resources to defend a city now in total ruin while Ukrainian forces prepare a counterattack.
On Sunday, Russia’s defense ministry backed a claim first made by the head of the Wagner paramilitary group, Prigozhin, that Russian forces have seized Bakhmut.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who made a surprise appearance at the G7 summit on Saturday, disputed the claim but conceded that the city was destroyed, saying Bakhmut is now “only in our hearts.” Ukrainian Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskiy also said that the city was largely under Russian control with the exception of small parts of the city, including an area near Druzhba Square, The Washington Post reported.
For 10 months, Russia has led an assault on the city that has now been reduced to rubble and is believed to have claimed thousands of lives from both sides even as military experts argued that the area doesn’t provide a strategic advantage.
“The last few urban blocks of eastern Bakhmut that Prigozhin claimed that Wagner Group forces captured are not tactically or operationally significant,” the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote in a Saturday night report. “Their capture does not grant Russian forces operationally significant terrain to continue conducting offensive operations or any particularly strong position from which to defend against possible Ukrainian counterattacks.”
Russia’s capture of Bakhmut could then largely be nothing more than a symbolic victory, and perhaps a face-saving measure for Prigozhin, who has reportedly recruited about 50,000 personnel to fight the war in Ukraine.
The battle in Bakhmut has also, at times, put the Wagner leader at odds with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Prigozhin has accused the Russian leader of not providing enough supplies for his paramilitary group and once threatened to provide Ukraine location information of Russian troops in exchange for mercy on the frontlines in Bakhmut, leaked documents showed.
Prigozhin later said in a Telegram message that the report was a “hoax.”
Beyond a symbolic triumph, there are other variables that could put Russia in a bind after injecting an untold amount of resources into the Donetsk region which has been named “the meat grinder” to reflect the deadly conditions of the area.
For one, Russia may now want to invest in defending its claimed control of Bakhmut.
According to intelligence for the British Ministry of Defense shared on May 19, Russia has “highly likely redeployed up to several battalions to reinforce the Bakhmut sector” — “a notable commitment by the Russian command.”
This could pose a problem for Russia if it hopes to prepare for a counteroffensive Ukraine has for weeks been preparing for while also holding down Bakhmut, where Ukraine continues to launch counterattacks on the outskirts of the city.
“Russian forces will likely need additional reinforcements to hold Bakhmut City and its flanks at the expense of operations in other directions,” ISW reported.
Ukrainian officials have been tightlipped about where the next counteroffensive may take place, but military experts and analysts predict that the strike may be centered around southeast Ukraine in the Zaporizhzhia region.
Executing a successful counteroffensive will be critical for Ukraine so that the country could make a persuasive case for continued support from Western countries and NATO allies, military strategy experts previously told Insider.
Prigozhin also said he intends to withdraw his troops from Bakhmut by May 25 after he claimed victory on May 20, but a sustained presence from Ukrainian forces around the area may complicate those efforts.
“The Russian military command is unlikely to generate sufficient forces to relieve Wagner in Bakhmut and hold its flanks within the window Prigozhin has announced without redeploying Russian forces from other areas,” according to the ISW report.
The think tank also did not rule out the possibility that Prigozhin made those statements in a “crude attempt” to mislead Ukraine from launching a counterattack in the city. The Wagner leader has been known to go off on tirades and backtrack on statements.