Intense fighting, symbolic city… Bakhmout on the verge of falling

What will remain of Bakhmout? Under the fire of fierce fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces since this summer, the city, located in the Donetsk region of the Donbass, seems on the verge of falling into Russian hands. A symbolic victory, but not very strategic, which will allow Moscow to boast of advancing the front line a few additional meters. But the military and human cost of these small victories is enormous. State of play.

Where are the fights?

The noose is tightening on the Ukrainian army which has been defending the city of Bakhmout since the summer. After months of efforts and reinforcements sent all over the battlefield by the Russians, supported in the region by the Wagner mercenary group, the fall of the city seems more and more inevitable. On Tuesday evening, Volodymyr Zelensky himself conceded that “the greatest difficulties, as before, are in Bakhmout (…) Russia does not count its men at all, constantly sending them to attack our positions . The intensity of the fighting is only increasing”. As of Monday evening, the Ukrainian president had recognized that the situation around Bakhmout was becoming “more and more complicated” for Ukrainian soldiers.

“The situation around Bakhmout is extremely tense”, noted earlier in the day the commander of the Ukrainian land forces, Oleksandre Syrsky, quoted by the official press center of the army. According to him, the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, on the front line in this battle, is trying to “break through the defense of our troops and surround the city”. In recent weeks, Russian forces have claimed gains around Bakhmout, especially in the north, stepping up their efforts to encircle the city where both sides have suffered heavy losses since the summer. Opposite, the strategy of the Ukrainians is to avoid being “locked up” in the city, explains to France Info General Dominique Trinquand, former head of the French military mission to the UN and specialist in international relations.

What is the morale of the troops on the Ukrainian side?

The morale of the troops inevitably suffers from this war of attrition which aims to “wear down the Ukrainians so that they no longer have the initiative”, explained to 20 minutes Olivier Kempf, associate researcher at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS), in February. Thus, a soldier interviewed by AFP, named “Fox”, does not believe in victory. According to him, the defenders of Bakhmout do not have enough men or ammunition and feel discouraged. “Everyone is on edge,” he says. “Lack of sleep, cold, rain, the weather changing all the time, constant bombardments, constant infantry assaults…”, enumerates this soldier in fatigues. And if it is difficult to make predictions, it becomes more and more difficult to resist the assaults of the Russians and their artillery fire, believes the soldier. “I think Bakhmout will probably fall,” he said.

However, some hold a much more optimistic discourse. Other Ukrainian soldiers interviewed by AFP said on Monday that they were keeping their spirits up. “We cannot know the whole operational situation but we are here, we did not flee”, maintains a 44-year-old soldier whose nom de guerre is “Kaï”. “If we feel defeated, if we are apathetic, we will not win. But we are in a good mood, ”he says with a broad smile. “Not only Bakhmout but Crimea and all the rest: we will recover everything”, encourages “Died”, 45 years old.

Why is this city an objective for the Russians?

Despite a strategic importance disputed by experts, Bakhmout has become a symbol of the struggle for control of the industrial region of Donbass. Volodymyr Zelensky, who went there in December, had sworn to defend this fortress city “as long as possible”. Moreover, while kyiv has led effective counter-offensives, particularly this fall in Kherson, Moscow is struggling to show progress on the ground. In addition to the small breakthroughs of this winter, the last Russian successes in Ukraine date back, in fact, to the beginning of the summer.

A victory in a city such as Bakhmout would then mark a symbolic advance, more significant than the victories over Blagodatné, Vougledar or even Soledar. “The Russian command wants to control the entire Donetsk region, and Bakhmout is the main gateway to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk”, two important cities in the Donbass, explained to AFP in December Michael Kofman, director of studies on Russia at the CNA, an American research institute. “The Russians are continuing their offensive to divert media attention from the setbacks of this fall,” also said Mykola Bieliekov, researcher at the National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kiev, interviewed by AFP.

How could kyiv finally take advantage of this relentlessness on Bakhmout?

Even if the fall of Bakhmut meant a retreat of the front line and a defeat for the Ukrainian forces, the battle could still benefit Kiev. The forces mobilized by the Russian army and its private supporters suffered greatly from the losses in the fighting. According to General Dominique Trinquand, the Russians would lose “200 to 300 soldiers a day”. “The Ukrainians maintained the positions precisely to be able to reduce, use, Russian capacities”, he analyzes. Moreover, the Ukrainian forces have prepared their positions “a little further back” from the city “with extremely solid defensive positions”, he adds. Because this war of attrition wears down the forces of both sides.

This weakening of the Russian army is a godsend for counter-attacking elsewhere in Ukraine. “It’s an abscess of fixation,” explains Dominique Trinquand. “The Russians are accumulating their forces” around Bakhmout, so “they are not going elsewhere”, he develops. kyiv can thus work “hard” on a counter-offensive, confirms Defense Minister Oleksiï Reznikov. “We will strike harder and from greater distances, in the air, on land, at sea and in cyberspace. There will be our counter-offensive. We are working hard to prepare it,” he said on Facebook. This counter-attack should, moreover, be supported by the deliveries, among others, of heavy tanks promised by the West. Americans and Europeans are multiplying deliveries of longer-range ammunition to help kyiv overcome its shortage of men and equipment with more precise weapons than those of the Russians.

What’s left of the city?

Taking the city won’t do much for Russia. Bakhmout, which had 70,000 inhabitants before the war, was largely destroyed by the fighting. Some 4,000 civilians remain there despite the danger, taking refuge in basements and shelters, according to Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Secretary General.

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