War of attrition: Russia's stubborn fight for Ukraine's Bakhmut
A family in a basement used as a bomb shelter in Bakhmut © ANATOLII STEPANOV / AFP

For months, Russian forces have attacked the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut with frontal assaults, artillery barrages and air strikes in a stubborn battle for a settlement deemed strategically irrelevant by many observers.

Nonetheless, they have pushed forward.

As Russia continues to hurl what is left of its offensive power at entrenched Ukrainian positions in and around the city, experts have wondered whether the losses in manpower and equipment will match the potential prize.

"We are scratching our heads," a Western official told AFP this week when asked about Russia's focus on Bakhmut. "We don't know the answer."

With Ukrainian forces pressing forward with counteroffensives, Russian troops have largely dug in along the meandering front in an effort to hold the line as winter weather sets in.

Bakhmut, however, remains one of the few areas where the Kremlin's forces have fought to advance.

To gain control of the city, Russia is believed to have relied on mercenaries, prison conscripts, and newly mobilized soldiers to send waves of attacks against Ukrainian positions, resulting in brutal trench warfare and artillery battles that have flattened large portions of the city and its surroundings.

The assault follows a well-worn pattern eked out by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, where cities are pummeled under withering assaults at great cost until the Ukrainian military retreats.

"Russian efforts around Bakhmut indicate that Russian forces have fundamentally failed to learn from previous high-casualty campaigns concentrated on objectives of limited operational or strategic significance," wrote the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank.

"The costs associated with six months of brutal, grinding, and attrition-based combat around Bakhmut far outweigh any operational advantage that the Russians can obtain from taking Bakhmut."

- 'Every metre counts' -

The think tank went on to suggest that the continued fixation with Bakhmut along with the resources needed to capture it has effectively given Ukraine the ability to conduct counteroffensives elsewhere.

"Russian efforts to advance on Bakhmut have resulted in the continued attrition of Russian manpower and equipment, pinning troops on relatively insignificant settlements for weeks and months at a time," the institute concluded.

In the past week, Russian forces have made incremental gains in the outskirts of the city, as freezing temperatures across Ukraine have hardened the once muddy ground and paved the way for harder fighting in the east.

On Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky acknowledged the difficult inch-by-inch battle and other "hot spots" along the frontline in Donetsk.

"There is a very tough confrontation, every meter counts," the president said in his nightly address to the nation.

"I thank all our guys who destroy the enemy there every day, every night, every hour."

As seen by AFP reporters during a recent trip to Donetsk, Ukrainian forces continue to move large amounts of artillery around the area, while groups of reserve fighters are often visible along the roads leading to Bakhmut and the surrounding front.

'Meat grinder'

For some, the Kremlin appears desperate for a tangible victory on the battlefield following months of setbacks.

Russia's last major victory in Ukraine came with the capture of the eastern cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk over the summer.

Since then they have steadily lost large swaths of ground.

A lightning offensive in Kharkiv in early September shattered Russia's northeastern flank followed by a retreat from Kherson in November, robbing Moscow of the only provincial capital they managed to capture during the course of the war.

"Russians continue their offensive to shift the focus in the media from a series of Russian defeats this autumn," said Mykola Bielieskov, a research fellow at National Institute for Strategic Studies in Kyiv, echoing similar assessments made by the Ukrainian high command.

Bakhmut also represents a small piece of a much larger political goal repeatedly stressed by the Kremlin -- the capture of the entire Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.

"The Russian leadership wants control over Donetsk, and Bakhmut is the main gateway to Slovyansk/Kramatorsk," Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a US-based research institute, told AFP.

Other voices in Russia have stressed that the fight for Bakhmut has little to do with the actual city.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of Russia's Wagner mercenary group that is helping lead the fight for Bakhmut, said his troops have primarily centered their efforts on demolishing the Ukrainian army there.

"Bakhmut is a large, well-fortified area with roads, suburbs, and water barriers," said Prigozhin in a statement released last month by his company, Concord.

"Our task is not Bakhmut itself, but the destruction of the Ukrainian army and the reduction of its combat potential, which has an extremely positive effect on other areas, which is why this operation was dubbed the 'Bakhmut meat grinder.'"

© 2022 AFP