If Bakmuth falls into Russian hands, what will happen?

Ukrainian infantrymen from the 28th Brigade vandalize buildings while driving to a forward position facing Russian troops outside Bagmuth, Ukraine on March 05, 2023.

John Moore | Getty Images News | Good pictures

Unsurprisingly, after seven months of fighting over the industrial city of Bakhmut in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, neither Ukraine nor Russia wants to surrender its defenses — or take over.

But now Russia, especially by Moscow’s mercenaries in the Wagner Group, seems to be overpowered by the sheer weight of manpower expended in the ceaseless fighting there.

On Wednesday, Evgeny Prigogine, The leader of Russia’s mercenaries fighting in Bagmut (a city known in Russia as “Artemovsk”) claimed that Wagner had completely captured the eastern flank. Via Russian state news agency TASS.

Ukraine vowed on Monday to continue to defend the city and send reinforcements, despite its forces appearing vulnerable to encirclement.

Both Russia and Ukraine have thrown huge numbers of personnel into their efforts to capture and secure Baghmuth, respectively, and both claim to be inflicting hundreds of casualties on each other on a daily basis.

Apart from atoning for these sacrifices with some sort of victory at Bakmut, there are many other reasons why both sides would have a reason to continue fighting to the bitter end.

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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the decision to protect Bakhmut shows that Ukraine will not be “abandoned” anywhere, an important psychological and symbolic message for Ukrainian fighters, who believe it is important to protect their country after a year of fighting.

However, the fighting merits of Pakmut, a city of around 70,000 people and known for its pre-war salt mining industry, have been questioned, with military analysts and officials noting that Pakmut fell into Russian hands, but that it was a success. Don’t dramatically change the course of the battle.

Feb. 27, 2023 aerial view of the destruction in Bagmut. Russian forces appear to be tightening the cordon around the city of Donetsk.

– | Afp | Good pictures

“I think it’s more of a symbolic value than a strategic and operational value,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters on Monday when asked about the importance of the battle over Pakmut.

“The fall of Bagmuth does not mean that the Russians have turned the tide of this fight,” he said, adding that he could not predict when Bagmuth would fall to Russian forces.

Ukrainian officials say the city is now largely in ruins, reducing any value to Russia, while Kyiv is part of Ukraine. “I think it’s more about symbolic value than real strategic value,” Yuri Zak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense ministry, told CNBC.

“It’s not a big city … now it’s in ruins and pulverized. There are two thousand people living in underground shelters, but it’s a deserted city, with only constant artillery and street-to-street fighting. Strategically, I think. Now for both sides, it’s a symbol. “There is, and that’s why we call it the ‘Fortress’ of Bagmuth,” said Zach.

The Wagner private military company has a point to prove in Bakhmut, as it improves its credibility within the Kremlin and Russia’s Defense Ministry (which Prigozhin has fought more publicly) and in the Russian public and military blogosphere.

Michael Clarke, the former director-general of the British defense and security think tank RUSI, acknowledged on Tuesday that “Pakmut does not have enormous strategic value” but noted that Russia and Ukraine attribute a special symbolic significance to the city.

“For seven months now, the Wagner group … has made Bagmut a target to show that they can land when the rest of the Russian military does. So it’s become a massive identity issue,” Clarke told BBC radio. , he did not believe Buckmuth’s downfall was inevitable, but said it was “most likely.”

“Ukrainians are now in a situation where they have to decide whether they live with the identity problem of giving it up or lose more troops to protect it.”

A soldier from a Ukrainian assault brigade walks along a muddy track used to transport and position British-made L118 105mm howitzers, near Bagmud, Ukraine, on March 4, 2023.

John Moore | Getty Images News | Good pictures

A critical issue is whether Ukraine can continue to supply its forces in Pakmut. On Tuesday, the British Ministry of Defense noted that a Russian strike had destroyed a bridge over the only paved supply road into Ukrainian-held Baghmut, adding in an intelligence update that “muddy conditions may hamper Ukrainian resupply efforts. Unpaved tracks.”

The southwestern part of Bagmut currently provides Ukraine with a route in and out of Bagmut but once that route is cut “they will have to leave,” Clark said.

Strategic value

Russia has made no bones about seeing the capture of Pakmut as a way to cut off Ukrainian supply lines in the wider Donetsk region, a key military target for Russia. Bakhmut serves as a transit hub for Ukraine, which supplies its troops in the region, although Ukrainian officials have tried to downplay the impact any fall of Bakhmut would have on the war effort.

Ukrainian military vehicles drive on a road outside the strategic city of Baghmut on January 18, 2023 in Baghmut, Ukraine. Russia has stepped up its offensive in Donetsk region in the new year, with the region’s Kyiv-appointed governor accusing Russia of using incendiary tactics.

Spencer Platt | Getty Images News | Good pictures

However, Ukraine is wary that Russia could use the city as a stepping stone to advance on other cities in eastern Ukraine and strengthen its military presence in the region.

On Tuesday, Zelenskyy warned that Russian troops would have an “open path” to key cities in eastern Ukraine if they captured Bagmut.

“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky told CNN, stressing that Kiev’s military brass is united in maintaining the city’s security. “We understand that after Bagmuth they can go further. They can go to Gramadores, they can go to Slovians, after Bagmuth the Russians will have an open road to other cities in Ukraine in the direction of Donetsk. That’s why our guys are standing. There.”

Ukraine’s fear that capturing Pakmut would allow the Russians to advance further was not universally shared. Analysts say that because Russia lost so much manpower during the Battle of Bagmuth, it will cost them.

Experts at the War Research Institute note that Bagmuth is not “operationally or strategically intrinsically important,” but for Russia, taking Bagmuth is “necessary but not sufficient” in the Donetsk region.

“Russian forces have already suffered heavy losses fighting for the city, and their offensive will reach its climax after they capture it — if not before. The loss of Pakmut is not a major operational or strategic concern for Ukraine, as the secretary noted, Austin and others observed,” it said in an analysis on Monday.

Mercenaries control the pace

Ukraine says it has another reason to fight in Pakmut if Russia’s best combat units are spent in action.

The Defense Ministry said on Monday The commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, Colonel-General Oleksandr Chirsky, returned to the units defending Bagmut and noted that “the enemy had thrown Wagner’s additional forces into battle” and that the Ukrainian forces had “inflicted significant losses on the enemy and destroyed them”. A large amount of equipment forced Wagner’s best assault units into battle and reduced the enemy’s offensive capabilities.”

Defense analysts note that Wagner’s founder Prigozhin now appears wary of the Battle of Pakmut, which ISW analysts said “severely degraded the Wagner Group’s best forces and lost some of Russia’s most effective and toughest shock troops.”

Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian businessman and close ally of Vladimir Putin, is the head of Russia’s Wagner Mercenary Group and other companies.

Mikhail Svetlov | Good pictures

“Yevgeny Prigozhin, financier of the Wagner Group, openly fears that his forces are being spent in exactly this way. Prigozhin issued several statements on March 5 and 6 in which he says he fears that the Russian Defense Ministry is fighting the Bagmud battle to the end. Wagner is exposing the warlord and his forces to destruction,” ISW analysts said. reported.

For Ukraine, a serious deterioration or destruction of the elite Wagner fighting force would have positive ramifications beyond the battlefield, ISW said, adding that Prigozhin’s growing prominence and status in Russia’s public sphere had brought about a wider spread of Wagner’s militarism and ideology throughout Russia. .

ISW said that “severely damaging Prigozhin’s authority and reputation within Russia would be an important achievement from the standpoint of long-term prospects for restoring sanity in Russia. It is an objective in the interests of the United States and in the interests of Ukraine, and it raises the stakes in the war. Pakmut goes beyond terrain and battlefield geometry.”

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