Why a small city in eastern Ukraine has become the scene of the fiercest fighting in Europe since World War Two.
One city, nine months of fighting, and at least tens of thousands of soldiers dead.
The battle for Bakhmut has been the bloodiest since Vladimir Putin began his full scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Bakhmut is a small city in the Donetsk region in the east of Ukraine, just 150 kilometres from the border with Russia.
Most of its 72,000 civilians fled when Russia began shelling the city in August…
The fighting has been going on ever since and Bakhmut has become known as a ‘meat grinder.’
Ukraine is said to be losing 100 to 200 soldiers a day but it’s estimated that Russian losses could be up to 8 times higher than that.
Tortoise’s Ukraine editor, Nina Kuryata, has been following the battle:
“We only know Russian losses because the Ukrainian side doesn’t disclose the numbers. But we know that at least 40,000 Russians, including regular Army and Wagner mercenaries died there in the battle.”Nina Kuryata
The Wagner mercenaries are a group of men – most of them ex-prisoners – who are being paid to fight by a Russian businessman called Yevgeny Prigozhin…
“The financier, the leader of Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, made mk like a main point of his agenda because he’s trying to prove that Russian military authorities do not do their job well. He made Bahamut like the main point to show that he’s capable of doing things better than the regular army. And he deployed about 30,000 criminals in Russia, he went to prisons and they’ve been promised to be released if they survive in that battle.”Nina Kuryata
Yevgeny Prigozhin has been sending tens of thousands of his mercenaries to their death in an attempt to take Bakhmut.
But why is the city so important?
Bakhmut isn’t a site of huge military importance but if Russia had taken it last year it would have been symbolic.
Now, after so much blood, weaponry and propaganda have been invested in the battle, it has become strategically important as well.
That’s because both sides have used Bakhmut to kill as many opposition troops – and grind down their resources – as possible.
Here’s Nina Kuryata again…
“Bakhmut became a point where the Russian army and mercenaries put such a lot of manpower and such a lot of effort, it became the main hot spot to grind as many enemies for Ukrainian army as possible. And that is why Ukraine is also forced to pour the best resources there and to grind, Russian Army and mercenaries.”Nina Kuryata
And each side has also used Bakhmut to draw enemy fighters into the area so there are fewer soldiers left to resist counter-attacks elsewhere….
“This is a place where it’s more important not to take or release any small town or city, but to destroy as many enemies as possible.So this is the military importance, not in terms of geography and frontline, but in terms of enemy resources.”Nina Kuryata
Despite all that manpower and fighting, the frontlines in the battle for Bakhmut have barely moved since last summer and the city has been reduced to rubble.
“The troops are stuck from both sides in Bakhmut. Russians do not have enough motivation. There are non-trained people with absent motivation or criminals deployed just. Because of the chance that they will survive. And on the Ukrainian side, they really lack weapons and munitions. Putting more and more cannon fodder into the frontline.”Nina Kuryata
But it looks like the future of Bakhmut might be decided in the coming weeks.
In early April, the leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said he had raised a Russian flag over Bakhmut’s city hall.
[Prigozhin speaking Russian]
A top Ukrainian commander accused Moscow of using “scorched earth” tactics but has insisted its army still holds Bakhmut…
[SFX Battle: guns firing]
However, President Volodymyr Zelensky has admitted that troops could be withdrawn if they run the risk of being encircled.
Ukraine is holding on to Bakhmut for now, but it needs Western military aid if it is to push back against Russian forces.
“Now in Bakhmut unfortunately, Ukraine is playing by Russian rules because Russia likes to use a lot of cannon fodder put a lot of manpower. Rather sooner than later, then Ukraine needs the weapons sooner rather than later, because without weapons, without the critical mass of tanks and missiles and manpower… No territorial gains can be possible.”Nina Kuryata
This episode of the Sensemaker was written and mixed by Rebecca Moore.