Seldom in the history of warfare has so much been said, amid so much death, about a place that mattered so little – but that’s the Battle for Bakhmut for you. For now.
The leader of the Russian mercenary company Wagner claimed Saturday that his men had captured the town from Ukraine after “224 days of fighting.” Ukraine has denied the claim – and insisted that not only has Bakhmut not fallen but that it’s being flanked by Kyiv’s forces.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Maliar, said Monday that Ukrainian forces are still in control of some buildings in the southwest of Bakhmut and that the two sides were still fighting for control of “the dominant heights on the flanks” north and south of the city’s suburbs.
For months Ukrainian commanders in charge of troops on the ground, and the troops themselves, have scratched their heads over why Russia was prepared to invest so much materiel, and spend so many Russian lives, on trying to capture a town that has no obvious tactical, let alone strategic, value.
Wagner, and whoever is paying the company’s bills, was profligate with its people.
Back in December, a member of the International Legion of Defense of Ukraine, fighting in a group of about a dozen men to the south of the town, called from the front line.
“It’s incredible,” he told me. “Those Wagner guys come in waves of, like, 40 at a time. We kill 35. Five get into a trench or a house, then they send another 40 and we shoot another 35 or so. We’re just cutting them down like grass.”
It was assumed the “musicians,” as pro-Russian groups like to call the mercenaries, were largely prisoners. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the company, likes to call them “recidivists.” These convict recruits, some of them facing long sentences, were offered freedom if they survived six months at the front.
Clearly many did not. Instead, they were thrown into what both sides call the “meat grinder.”
“They’re coming at us all the time. We don’t know why they value Bakhmut so much but we know where they are and we know where to kill them,” said a brigade commander at the end of last year.
Meanwhile, Prigozhin developed a taste for publicly lambasting Russia’s military leadership, its ministers and generals, its bureaucrats and businessmen – everyone apart from President Vladimir Putin himself. In often bizarre videos he accused them of starving his men of ammunition. He said regular Russian troops were incompetent cowards.
How that will play out if he returns to Moscow is his problem.
He’s also been identified by US intelligence documents as having offered to give Ukraine military secrets in return for an easy ride for his men around Bakhmut, according to the Washington Post. Prigozhin denied the report, suggesting it could have been planted by his enemies.
His redeeming grace, for Putin, may lie in that he’s been labeled as the head of a transnational criminal entity by the US. Lawmakers in France have also approved a motion calling on the French government and the European Union to designate Wagner as a terrorist organization. The UK government declined to comment on reports it is ready to do the same.
Russia’s obsession with Bakhmut, combined with the antics of a mercenary leader who’s said publicly that his men will be killed if they refuse to fight, has meant that the city has assumed iconic status in the wider war as Ukraine fights to rid itself of the Russian invaders.
So, a “Wagner” victory there is a boon to the Kremlin – for now.
But the mercenaries say they want out by Thursday. And they’re being flanked to the north and south by Ukrainian troops.
If they’re the only people left in the rubble of the town, then it’s a free-fire zone and they’re in the middle of it.
Far from a victory, they face being minced if Ukraine managed to close its jaws on them.
One wonders whether, or not, that would really worry Putin.