BAKHMUT, Ukraine — It’s not a capital like Kyiv, a major city like Kharkiv or a vital port like Odesa, but the provincial city of Bakhmut has become the unlikely epicenter of Russia’s campaign in Ukraine as the Kremlin desperately seeks a symbolic signature win for an invasion that has gone badly wrong so far.
The pitched battle for the obscure eastern Ukrainian city has reached a critical point over the past few months, but military strategists say the prize is not worth the blood and treasure expended. Beginning last summer with a major commitment of forces, including troops who took part in the failed assault on Kyiv, the Russian army began a major effort to take Bakhmut.
Russian forces on Wednesday used jets, mortars and rockets to bombard the nearby salt-mining town of Soledar in the face of determined Ukrainian resistance, according to The Associated Press.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin was shaking up the military command of the Ukraine campaign yet again.
Although less than 5% of the population of Bakhmut, which once stood at more than 70,000, is believed to still be in the city, the Ukrainian army on a recent visit was entrenched among the rubble where buildings and apartments once stood.
The Ukrainian defense has been so tenacious that in a bold move, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy drove into a ruined factory in the heart of the city last month to award medals to some of those manning the front lines, even as artillery fire sounded nearby. Hours later, Mr. Zelenskyy boarded a plane to meet with President Biden in the Oval Office and address a joint session of Congress.
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The flanking movements of Russian forces to the north and the south have caused the Ukrainians to move out of their defensive positions and forced them to spread their lines more thinly to meet the attacks while preventing the Russians from claiming the city.
“This has made defending the city more difficult,” Ukrainian Lt. Col. Petro Kuzyk recently told a group of visiting reporters. “Moving outside of the city, into open areas, we are more vulnerable to the Russian artillery. But our soldiers are not stepping back.”
In Moscow, the demotion of Gen. Sergei Surovikin, named to lead the Russian “special military operation” in Ukraine three months ago, was seen as a sign of Mr. Putin’s growing frustration with the war and the need for a battlefield victory to tamp down restless domestic critics.
The Russian Defense Ministry announced that the chief of the military’s general staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, will now oversee the war, with Gen. Surovikin as his deputy. A ministry statement said the change was meant to improve coordination among different military branches and the “quality and effectiveness” of the command structure.
Anchor and target
Located at the base of the southern portion of the Donbas salient, Bakhmut is the anchor of the Ukrainian defense in the Donbas region.
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It is a region rich in natural resources, including the vast salt mines in Soledar just 6 miles north of Bakhmut, and contains the heavy industry that characterizes much of the Donbas. Bakhmut serves as a major road junction astride a series of rugged ridgelines.
Last summer, as the main Russian effort went in farther to the northeast to capture the cities of Sieverdonetsk and Lysachansk, Russian troops slowly and methodically approached Bakhmut from the southeast.
Initially relying on long-range artillery to soften up the city, the Russians advanced through the summer and into the fall until they had secured the suburbs along the ridgelines below Bakhmut. Slowed temporarily by the lightning Ukrainian counteroffensive to the north this fall, the Russian offensive was resumed after the lines were stabilized and more reinforcements brought up, but direct assaults on the Ukrainian defensive positions were repeatedly repelled and the Russians sustained large-scale losses in infantry and armor.
Late in the fall, Mr. Putin gave responsibility for the capture of Bakhmut to the mercenary Wagner Group, the private contract army led by close ally Yevgeny Prigozhin. Drawing on international volunteers and convicts from Russian prisons, the Wagner Group forces stepped up the relentless pressure on Bakhmut and began to tighten the ring.
Failing to penetrate the city by direct assault, Russian forces succeeded in gaining footholds on the ridgelines to the north and south of the city. Expanding on this success, the Russians have continued to press farther to the north and south of Bakhmut while pinning the Ukrainian forces inside the city with heavy concentrations of artillery fire. The incessant bombardment has reduced much of the city to ruins.
Russian forces, with the Wagner Group in the lead, have focused on Soledar, which had a prewar population of about 10,000 and is positioned along a major road running north from Bakhmut up into the Donbas salient. Intense fighting has brought Russian troops into the town center as the Ukrainians battle to keep the road open.
The capture of Soledar would give the Russians a key foothold north of Bakhmut and effectively cut off the city from the eastern portion of the Donbas salient. That would leave Bakhmut only one major road into the city under Ukrainian control.
Fog of war
Amid the intense fighting, it has been hard to evaluate the claims of the two sides as to who is winning the battle. The Wagner Group’s Mr. Prighozin said Tuesday and again Wednesday that his troops had taken all of Soledar. Ukrainian commanders disputed that claim.
“Once again I want to confirm the complete liberation and cleansing of the territory of Soledar from units of the Ukrainian army,” Mr. Prigozhin wrote on his Russian social media platform. “Civilians were withdrawn. Ukrainian units that did not want to surrender were destroyed.”
The Kremlin’s official spokesman refused to confirm that Soledar had fallen, and Mr. Zelenskyy denied it in a Wednesday evening address to the nation.
“Now the terrorist state and its propagandists are trying to pretend that some part of our city of Soledar — a city that was almost completely destroyed by the occupiers — is allegedly some kind of Russia’s achievement.” The city, he said, remains in Ukrainian hands.
The fight pales in comparison strategically with the battles for Ukraine’s biggest cities, but the confirmed fall of Soledar would cause problems for Kyiv’s forces.
The loss of Bakhmut would secure Russian control of the south side of the Donbas salient, seriously undermine the eastern portion of the Ukrainian defensive line there and all but bring their forces to the doorstep of Kramatorsk, the last major city in the region.
Ukrainian officials say the objective beyond holding the city is to make its capture so costly in terms of men, ammunition and equipment for the Russians that it will undercut their ability to conduct a much-anticipated spring offensive.
The Ukrainians are also fighting for time as reinforcements are being prepared. New heavy weapon systems are expected to arrive based on promises from the U.S. and its NATO allies. From that perspective, the battle for Bakhmut is destined to become one of the pivotal events of the war.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.