The last time I visited Bakhmut, it was a behind the lines town where frontline soldiers went to watch movies. A town of rose alleys and excellent local wine, Bakhmut was a “whole” hour’s drive from the trenches. We watched Cyborgs, the story of the bloody defense of Donetsk airport in 2014-2015. Surrounded by the enemy, Ukrainian troops withstood everything that was thrown at them. Only the concrete gave way (we used to say) after the terminal building collapsed. Ceilings crumbled to dust, burying dead and wounded soldiers underneath.
Today Bakhmut is also being smashed to dust.
There was a point during the Donetsk airport battle when many asked whether its defense had simply become a matter of pointless pride, a mere symbol of Ukrainian invincibility. Whether the army was building a legend, and whether a legend can be worth human life. Today we sometimes ask ourselves the same about the never-ending Bakhmut story, now nine months old. What is it? And what is it worth?
Some things are certain. The battle’s symbolism is enormous. Much like the siege of the Avovstal steel works in Mariupol last year, the battle is at the heart of Ukrainian resistance and the signs are everywhere — take a look at the hit song “Fortress Bakhmut”, by the band Antytila, which has been viewed more than 7 million times. It is also certain that the Russians have advanced a dismal 25km at an enormous cost, suffering 20,000-30,000 casualties, according to British defense intelligence.
Ukrainian officials don’t over-explain the strategy. But their position is consistent: Bakhmut must be protected and held. So any Ukrainian serviceman will when first asked, line up to say — for the record — that “we will fight for every piece of our land till the end.” That “Bakhmut is a synonym for “unbreakable.” And that’s certainly true. But a bit more substantive conversation leads us elsewhere, to perhaps a more honest answer. “I need to think how to explain this,” says one officer of higher rank. “Or my superior will screw my head off.”
But the lower in rank – the braver.
“Symbols, legends, fortresses are for the civilians,” says Iskra, a woman soldier. “For the military Bakhmut is a very difficult part of the front, where the enemy concentrated a large amount of personnel and equipment. It is not about sacredness, but about the frontier between Russians and our normal civilian life. It’s one of the towns, like Severodonetsk or Rubizhne earlier, that holds the Horde back from moving on to the world of lavender latte and babies playing in the parks. Because the Russians won’t stop.”
The current critical situation in Bakhmut, she comments, is caused by “the lack of everything”. Sometimes that’s a lack of knowledge; sometimes it’s a lack of communication. Often it’s the lack of ammunition.
If Bakhmut surrenders, Russia’s meat-grinder war will just move to another place. So the puzzle is not deciding whether or not Bakhmut should be defended, it’s “getting adequate ammunition to the artillery. Because currently in most areas we are fighting with infantry”, Sergeant Igor Slayko says. He too has been fighting since 2014. In civilian life, he was a cook and a dad — he has a 5-year-old boy. Now he’s the commander of a mortar unit.
“Bakhmut is not hell because the Russians are attacking. It is hell because there is never enough firepower, never enough ammunition. Our troops are fighting back any way they can. But it’s one thing when a soldier dies during a fair battle. And another thing is when infantry is ‘dug up’ by enemy artillery because there’s no adequate fire support. And afterward, new infantry takes their place. While I waste time ‘guarding’ mortars in the fields . . . ” Slayko sighs. “On the news, they say that Russians have an ‘ammo famine, an ammo shortage. Their ‘shortage’ is shooting as much every day as we do on our best days. Our situation is much worse”.
That’s a common opinion. Or, more precisely, a fact. As 93rd Brigade officer Iryna Rybakova said, this is why “we lost Soledar, why we are pushed back from Bakhmut.”
Another example was just shared by Oleksandr Proskurin, a Ukrainian officer who is known as “Alexandr Lieutenant” (Александр Лейтеха) on social media. “I’ll show you the other side of Bakhmut’s defense”, he writes. And tells the story of a Russian T-90M tank detected in the Zabakhmutka district. That tank costs a minimum of $2.5m.
The lieutenant’s story is about the army’s refusal to use Western ammunition to strike the parked tank. Because it’s “expensive”. He talks of disputes, financial calculations, a few shots, all of which missed the target . . . until the tank left. “It will come back and kill someone, for sure” Proskurin predicts.
The enemy, he says, can move freely 1-3km (0.6-1.9 miles) from the battle lines: “The shortage of shells is catastrophic. Everyone who has a mouth promises us that it will get better”.
But it doesn’t.
(Proskurin wants it known though that there’s no desire to withdraw. “We will fulfill our duty to the last. No matter what.”)
The defenders of Bakhmut work with whatever they have, and regardless of their shortages are holding down a significant portion of Russia’s combat-ready units. The defenders of Bakhmut are keeping the enemy from more or less peaceful Ukrainian towns behind their backs. And maybe they are doing even more than that.
“During the time that Bakhmut holds, the Ukrainian army accumulates resources and prepares a counteroffensive. Only the highest military leadership has real information about how much more time and resources are needed to launch a counteroffensive, as well as the number and ratio of losses. And without complete information, it is impossible to judge military expediency. But I can definitely say that the loss ratio is 1:7, at least in the areas of the Bakhmut defense that I have information about. It is not an exaggeration”, Ukrainian artillery officer Olena Bilozerska says. Not that the enemy is running out of manpower.
Ukrainian soldiers are opposed mainly by Wagner Group mercenaries. These men, many ex-convicts, are told they will be shot for refusing to carry out orders that are often simply suicidal. “Probable death is in front of them, guaranteed death is behind them,” Bilozerska explains.
The defensive operation around Bakhmut is of paramount strategic importance for deterring the enemy, the commander-in-chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces says. According to General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, Bakhmut is the key to the stability of the entire front now. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has previously stated that Bakhmut’s meaning is more symbolic than operational. And that its fall would not mean that the Kremlin had regained the initiative.
So who knows? We, Ukrainians, can hope that Bakhmut won’t fall. We can also hope that if it does, the withdrawal will be temporary because the town has completed its current mission. Now surrounded on three sides, it is possible that Bakhmut will really become one more epic, but lost battle. Just like Donetsk airport, or Azovstal. And that’s ok. Battles can be lost in a war that’s ultimately won.
It just hurts to realize that with more resources, we would save a lot of lives. Had that been available, it is possible Bakhmut would never have become a fortress, a symbol, or a legend. In which case, hundreds, perhaps thousands of soldiers would have come home again to kiss their children.
Lera Burlakova is a Democracy Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA.) She is a journalist and former soldier from Ukraine. She served in combat from 2014-2017 after joining the Ukrainian army following the Russian invasion of Crimea. Her war diary “Life P.S.” received the UN Women in Arts award in 2021.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.