Ukrainian forces still trying to hold Bakhmut despite heavy casualties

Soldiers and analysts suggest defending city has become more of a political than practical issue, as Russian push continues

Ukrainian soldiers are being pummelled on three sides by Russian forces who are trying to capture Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donetsk region that has become the focus of the longest and one of the bloodiest battles since the war began.

Ukraine’s authorities insist they will continue to try to hold the city despite them suffering an estimated 100-200 casualties a day – with some saying the reason is more political and symbolic than practical. Retreating from the city now, after so many soldiers died fighting to keep it, would be a hard reality to face.

The Russian push for Bakhmut started in July and intensified in the autumn after Moscow mobilised thousands of men, many of whom were Russian prisoners who signed up with the promise of freedom after six months of service.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, told CNN in an interview that retreating from Bakhmut would “open the road” for Russian forces to attack the neighbouring Ukrainian-controlled towns of Kostiantynivka and Kramatorsk.

“I hope we don’t have to leave, but we will if [the frontline] comes to us,” said Dmytro Yakovensko, a doctor working in the children’s hospital in Kramatorsk. Kramatorsk has been relatively quiet in recent weeks, as Russian forces have concentrated their firepower on Bakhmut.

But soldiers on the ground and western analysts feel differently, with Ukraine’s heavy death toll being suggested as one of the reasons Ukraine’s leadership has been unwilling to give up – and also the reason it should.

“In my opinion, it’s political,” said Andriy, a deputy commander in Donetsk region whose battalion is fighting in the Bakhmut area. Andriy, in his US-made camouflage coat, was standing next to a set of Soviet-era armoured vehicles that were being fixed. “The positions are ready [for them] to retreat to. The reason they are still there is more of a political thing.”

In the second week of February, pictures of blown-up bridges out of Bakhmut, in Ukrainian-controlled territory, started to appear online, indicating that Kyiv was preparing its retreat from the city.

Military analysts have said the logical place for the new line would still be some way from the neighbouring towns of Kostiantynivka and Kramatorsk and would mean that Ukrainian soldiers would stop facing attacks from three sides at once. And the US-based Institute for the Study of War believes that even if the city falls, Russian forces lack the “capability to exploit the tactical capture of Bakhmut”.

Furthermore, although western officials have estimated that Russia has had 20,000-30,000 casualties, Ukraine’s losses in Bakhmut could have a significant effect on its future chances.


A Moscow-based analyst with links to Russia’s ministry of defence estimated that 6,000-8,000 Russia troops had been killed, predominantly the recently recruited convicts. The analyst noted, however, that it was very difficult to be precise because the “brunt” of the fighting was being carried out by Wagner mercenary forces.

“Wagner doesn’t always retrieve the bodies of its fighters, while many of the former convicts fighting are not properly registered,” he said, on condition of anonymity. BBC Russia and the Mediazona news outlet have verified that at least 812 Russians who have died in Bakhmut but noted that the real number was likely “many times higher” as online obituaries in Russia rarely state where the soldier was killed.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian social media has been flooded with tributes to men killed in Bakhmut since November.

Though it is unclear exactly how many Ukrainians have been killed – Ukraine has classified the number of military dead for strategic reasons – the picture described by Ukrainian soldiers is dire, with one Bakhmut commander, Volodymyr Nazarenko, describing it as “utter hell” to a Ukrainian TV channel on Sunday.

Ukraine’s national security chief, Oleksiy Danilov, has said that one Ukrainian is killed for every seven Russians, and claimed that Ukrainian soldiers are killing as many as 1,100 Russians a day. It is impossible to verify Danilov’s figure. Nevertheless, all things point to Ukrainian losses being high, at about 100-200 a day.

“The issue is that the [Russians] have so many people,” said Volodymyr, a field commander fighting in the Bakhmut area. He had arrived to see Andriy and consult on the progress of the renovation of the tanks. “You send a drone over and you see they have five in one place and so you target them, then another 20 appear.”

The muddy weather conditions and urban setting have limited both sides’ use of heavy equipment. It has instead been a gruelling attritional battle of infantry and artillery, with Russia pouring what Ukrainians have described as “waves” of men at Ukrainian positions, conquering just metres of territory at a time.

The UK Ministry of Defence warned that the city was “under increasingly severe pressure”, adding that Ukrainian resupply routes out of the town were more and more limited.

But Volodymyr, the field commander, pushed back on the idea of retreating from Bakhmut, describing it as immoral given how many of his men he had lost in the fight so far, and highlighting the emotional and symbolic nature of the battle for Ukraine.

“What! So just give up? I came back with five men out of 20 two days ago, including myself,” he said. “If we do that, then we might as well just give the whole country away.”

During Zelenskiy’s surprise visit to Bakhmut in early February, he declared it “Fortress Bakhmut”.

However, Ukraine’s considerable losses in Bakhmut have even led some to describe it as a strategic mistake that may harm Ukraine’s hope of launching a successful counterattack in the spring.

A commander leading the troops around Bakhmut, speaking to the Wall Street Journal, said that Ukraine was using “too much of the offensive potential” that it would need once the ground dries and firms up in spring, when both sides will be able to use their heavy equipment.

Ukraine is awaiting shipments of equipment, ammunition and western-trained fighters, which should be in place by early April. Almost a third of Ukraine’s army will have Nato standard equipment when the shipments arrive, the Economist reported, while the bulk of it will still be Soviet.

“I hope that when we look back in history, we will understand why and that there was a plan or strategy [behind this],” said the first commander, Andriy, referring to the fact that the continued defence of Bakhmut may be part of a plan that is not yet apparent to soldiers on the ground.

Ukraine said on Tuesday that about 4,000 civilians had been killed in Bakhmut during Russia’s assault.


Isobel Koshiw in Kramatorsk and Pjotr Sauer

The GuardianTramp

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