The frontline town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine has been the focus of intense fighting for months.
Fighting intensified this week, but Ukrainian forces appear to be holding their ground against the Russians, who recently claimed to have taken the nearby salt-mining town of Soledar – a victory Kyiv denies.
If Russian forces or the Wagner mercenaries also fighting in eastern Ukraine, or indeed both, succeed in capturing Bakhmut, his fall would be Moscow’s most significant victory after months of humiliating setbacks.
Famous for its winemaking, the city is symbolically relevant to Ukrainians, for whom “Hold Bakhmut” is a popular slogan today.
Plumes of smoke rise from a Russian strike in the frontline town of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine January 7, 2023 during a 36-hour ceasefire over the Orthodox Christmas declared by Russian President Vladimir Putin [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]
Bakhmut’s pre-war population was about 70,000. Today, an estimated 2,000 civilians remain in the city; many are surviving in appalling conditions as the conflict rages on.
Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting about a kilometer from Bakhmut, said residents occasionally risked their lives to reach a volunteer center in the heart of town for hot food and drinks.
“There has been no water supply in the city since October and no electricity since August,” he said.
Russia’s focus on Bakhmut
After Russian troops captured the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysyhansk in the Luhansk region in June and July, Moscow launched a ruthless offensive against Bakhmut in the neighboring Donetsk region.
Employing familiar tactics, it has launched devastating ground attacks on settlements south of the city.
In late July, Moscow made territorial gains around Bakhmut and Avdiivka and took control of the Vuhlehirska thermal power station south-east of Bakhmut. Russia also seized Ukrainian barricades around the Butivka coal mine southwest of Avdiivka after Ukraine withdrew from the area.
By August, Russian forces and Wagner Group mercenaries were pushing towards Bakhmut with increased airstrikes and shelling. Wagner Group mercenaries also broke through Ukrainian defenses on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut.
By October, Russian forces were able to penetrate the north-eastern and southern suburbs of Bakhmut, but were eventually driven off by Ukrainian counterattacks.
escalation in winter
By November, with Bakhmut under constant fire from Russian artillery, the battle had turned into trench warfare, and hundreds of people were reported dead and wounded on both sides every day.
Kyiv said Russia suffered heavy casualties and many of those killed belonged to the Wagner group. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner boss, offered to pardon convicts if they joined the group and fought for six months. Since Prigozhin’s offer, some have been released.
With neither side making significant gains, civilians were forced to take shelter in basements prone to flooding.
By the end of November, Russian forces had advanced on Bakhmut’s southern front and had captured settlements such as Ozarianivka, a village 15 km (9 mi) southwest of the town.
Despite this, according to the then Institute for the Study of War, it was unlikely that Russian advances would produce “operational-level effects.”
On December 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi visited Bakhmut, where he urged Ukrainian militants to keep up their morale.
Conquest of Soledar
On January 13, Moscow said its forces had taken control of the nearby Ukrainian salt mining town of Soledar after weeks of intense fighting.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the capture was possible because of Moscow’s “constant shelling of the enemy” with rockets, artillery and planes.
Kyiv denies Soledar was captured and says Ukrainian troops are holding out.
The Russian ministry said control of Soledar would allow its forces to cut off Ukraine’s supply lines at Bakhmut and then “block and encircle Ukrainian units there.”
Taking Bakhmut would also open a route for Russian forces to advance toward Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, Ukrainian strongholds in the Donbass region that Moscow hopes to take full control of.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in Bakhmut, a Ukrainian soldier posing as Sergey said Russian ground forces had launched massive attacks on Kiev’s positions in recent months.
“They are sending in their troops like waves,” Sergei said. “We can’t stop them every time because we have fewer people and unfortunately we lost a lot of men.”
During his visit to the front, Zelenskyy said that Russia also had many victims to mourn: “The whole country near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupying forces and the scars of the strikes. This is what madness looks like.”
Described as one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war, the Battle of Bakhmut continues.