Russia is claiming victory in Bakhmut, but the price it paid for it 'doesn't bode well' for Putin's bigger plans, experts say

Ukrainian servicemen ride in a military truck near the frontline city of Bakhmut, Donetsk region on April 30, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Ukrainian servicemen ride in a military truck near the frontline city of Bakhmut, Donetsk region on April 30, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images
  • Russian forces are claiming victory in Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region.

  • Ukraine's leadership says it's not over yet, but a Ukrainian commander said effective control of the city has been lost.

  • Military experts say the city, where an intense and costly battle has raged for months, holds little strategic value.

Russian forces proudly claimed over the weekend to have captured the battered eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the site of the longest and bloodiest battle of the war, but the cost Russia paid at the expense of its troops undermines its claims of victory.

On Sunday, Moscow endorsed an earlier claim made by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Wagner Group private military company who said his mercenary organization had taken full control of the city. Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, have disputed some of the claims, but the the hold Kyiv's forces have on the city is said to be "insignificant."

Ukraine's top commander in the region, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskiy, acknowledged that Bakhmut was mostly under Russian control, even though his troops have positions established along the city's outskirts and flanks, where operations continue against exhausted Russian forces.

Russian leadership praised Wagner for its achievements in the devastated city of Bakhmut and promised the presentation of state awards. According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, Russian state media have since attempted to portray the city's purported capture as a remarkable and consequential moment, going over the top in the process.

"The Kremlin likely attempted to oversell the significance of the capture of Bakhmut as a historical victory due to the continued lack of tactical success in Ukraine, with one Russian state media outlet outrageously commenting that Wagner personnel in Bakhmut must feel like 'their grandfathers in Berlin,' ISW wrote in a Sunday analysis that referenced the Soviet Red Army's capture of the German capital in the Second World War. The battle for Bakhmut has previously been compared to the battle for Stalingrad, just without the importance.

Even if Russia has captured or is close to taking Bakhmut, the city carries limited strategic value for Russia, but it could deliver an important political victory to Moscow after its forces failed for months to achieve any notable successes on the battlefield, military experts told Insider. Still, Russia's claims of victory in Bakhmut come at an incredibly high cost to Russian President Vladimir Putin's troops and foreshadow future struggles in Ukraine.

"When you think about the difficulty Russia has had taking Bakhmut, it doesn't bode well for the future," Jeffrey Edmonds, a Russia expert and former CIA military analyst, told Insider earlier this year. "This is the big offensive that we're seeing right now," he said in March as Russia's winter offensive largely fizzled out.

Russian forces have been trying to capture Bakhmut — a city in eastern Ukraine's Donetsk region with a pre-war population of around 73,000 people — for almost a year. Shelling of the city first began in May 2022 after Putin's troops pivoted away from the Kyiv region and refocused their efforts on seizing the entirety of Ukraine's Donbas region.

Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut
Ukrainian soldiers fire a cannon near Bakhmut on May 15, 2023.Libkos/AP

Moscow turned the city into a key offensive effort by August 2022, Britain's defense ministry previously said. Over the next several months, Bakhmut became the focus of intense fighting — a grinding campaign that has left the city in ruins and cost thousands of lives.

Casualty estimates likely skew significantly higher for Russian forces. A NATO source previously told CNN that estimates indicate that for every one Ukrainian soldier killed, five Russians were lost. For the war overall, in the six months between December and May, Russia is estimated to have suffered 100,000 casualties, with at least 20,000 dead.

A brutal battle

Efforts to capture Bakhmut have been largely carried out by the notorious Wagner Group, a Kremlin-linked mercenary organization that has often found itself at odds with Moscow in recent months and was the first to claim victory over the city, though it's claims are contested. Wagner recruited tens of thousands of prisoners to fight in Ukraine, and many were thrown to the front lines in Bakhmut alongside freshly mobilized Russian soldiers to absorb heavy Ukrainian fire. Losses for these forces have been substantial.

US officials previously described the fight for Bakhmut as "really severe and savage," with thousands of artillery rounds being traded between the two sides every day. Soldiers defending the city from the Russian assault have called it a "meat grinder." The attackers have said the same.

Desperate for some sort of victory ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion in late February, Russian military leadership pushed a new offensive in eastern Ukraine with advances along several fronts — one of which was Bakhmut. In doing so, Moscow sent an onslaught of troops into battle while accepting a high casualty rate in an attempt to overwhelm the Ukrainians with manpower.

Smoke rises from buildings in an aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of heavy battles with Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, March 26, 2023.
Smoke rises from buildings in an aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of heavy battles with Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, March 26, 2023.AP Photo/Libkos

"What Russia lacks in quality, they try to compensate in quantity," NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in February. Ukraine could not really afford to expend its already-exhausted forces for a city with such limited strategic value, military experts previously told Insider, yet they fought fiercely for it anyway, determined to deprive the Russians of a win and exact a heavy toll that would prevent gains in other sectors.

Russia's approach has been similarly aimed at inflicting maximum damage on Ukraine and degrading its capabilities, even if Moscow suffers in the process, Marina Miron, an honorary research fellow at King's College London's Centre for Military Ethics, told Insider earlier this year. With a much-anticipated wave of heavy Western armor headed Ukraine's way, Russia likely wanted to destroy as much of Kyiv's military as possible so that it couldn't pursue any advances in the coming months.

Zelenskyy said in late February that the situation in Bakhmut was getting increasingly grim and the defending soldiers had limited protection. Russian forces claimed to have surrounded the city in early March, and leaked US intelligence documents from around that time painted a dire portrait of the situation for Kyiv.

By April 11, Russian forces occupied over 76 percent of the city, according to a terrain assessment from the ISW think tank. Though the outlook appeared bleak for Ukraine, Kyiv's forces continued to hold the city for as long as they could. Ukraine appears to have largely repositioned its forces to defensive areas on the outskirts of the city, though some operations continue within Bakhmut, tying up Russian forces vying for total control.

Victory comes at a cost

The claimed capture of Bakhmut gives Putin a much-needed political victory at a time where his military continues to find only limited success in Ukraine. Russia's war efforts have been mocked by top US officials as a failure. It also marks the first meaningful achievement of Russia's renewed offensive efforts and may strengthen the battered morale of Moscow's troops, Miron said.

Russia has wanted the city for months so it can break Ukraine's defensive lines and set up a platform to launch further attacks on nearby cities, she added. Bakhmut has critical road connections and sits just east of bigger cities like Kramatorsk. Russia may find difficulty in exploiting those though.

An aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of heavy battles with Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, March 26, 2023.
An aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of heavy battles with Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Sunday, March 26, 2023.AP Photo/Libkos

Experts have argued that the limited strategic value of the city does not outweigh the tremendous human costs of Russia's assault and Ukraine's defense, but because Russian military and Wagner Group leadership do not appear to care about the massive casualty toll, Russia will still consider Bakhmut a win, Miron said. 

It's unclear exactly how many troops each side lost fighting for Bakhmut. Western intelligence and top US officials said in early spring that Russia may have suffered more than 200,000 causalities so far during the war, and as many as 70,000 soldiers may have been killed. And Britain's defense ministry suggested that a recent uptick in losses could be attributed to artillery and Russian tactics in Bakhmut.

Russia poured a "strategic level of resources into something that's tactical," Edmonds said. "So while there might be some logistical value to it, it's nowhere near the value that Russians" put on the city. Moreso, Russia also has to strike a balance of focusing its manpower on the near-term while also keeping up with its overall strategy to outlast Ukraine on the battlefield.

Ukraine is gearing up for a much-anticipated counteroffensive aimed at liberating occupied territory in the eastern and southern regions. Experts have said that the integration of heavy armor from Ukraine's Western backers will be a good indicator that Kyiv has finally begun the offensive, which could target positions weakened by Russia's need to defend gains in Bakhmut.

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