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Ukraine War: Why Bakhmut Became Hell on Earth

M142 HIMARS Like in Ukraine
M142 HIMARS. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is Europe’s largest conventional war in decades, and it is the continent’s deadliest conflict since the Second World War. The war’s major battles are reminiscent of some of the most brutal 20th century fights. These include the Siege of Mariupol, the Battle of Severodonetsk, the Kherson Offensive, and now the grueling Battle of Bakhmut.

The battle for the city started in the aftermath of Russia’s Luhansk Offensive, when the Kremlin redeployed forces in Donetsk in an attempt to fully capture Ukraine’s Donbas region. Mirroring the Battle of the Frontiers along France in World War One, Bakhmut has become a dead man’s land.

For five straight months, Russian forces led by the infamous Wagner Group have thrown tens of thousands of their troops at the city, achieving minimal progress in the face of a steep Ukrainian defense. The city itself has been reduced to rubble due to indiscriminate Russian shelling – a repeat of Russian tactics in Mariupol, Aleppo, and Grozny.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces (ZSU) have made use of trenches in their defense, and since neither side has achieved air superiority, each inch taken by Russia has been paid in blood. Forests have become desolate. Defenders are restless and constantly exposed to the fog of war. Bakhmut has done as much to expose the horrors of conventional warfare as Mariupol did before it.

A Matter of Meters

The ZSU has also taken heavy casualties, but currently holds a favorable defensive position. Ukrainians are outnumbered, but they hold a solid posture with experienced troops stationed in the city for years. They are reinforced by Georgian, Polish, and Belarusian volunteers, showing the solidarity of people from nations who have suffered under the boot of the Kremlin.

Ukraine can rotate troops more frequently than the thinly stretched Russian forces across the occupied areas of Ukraine. Wagner-led forces have been reluctant to attack the city head-on, as it is a death trap. Instead they have moved to encircle the city, with only a few meters gained per day.

With both sides taking heavy casualties, the momentum has remained with Kyiv. Being able to form a stable defensive line by advancing in Kharkiv and Kherson, they have denied Moscow a victory for months and have inflicted casualties that the Kremlin cannot continuously replace, as evidenced by mobilization issues this autumn. Nonetheless, Moscow has continually thrown everything it has at this one city, recalling forces originally garrisoned in Kherson to reinforce the Wagner Group.

To bolster the overly stretched Russian forces, Dmitry Prigozhin, Wagner’s CEO, has recruited convicts throughout Russia to use as expendable manpower. Wagner has used human wave  tactics, expending their own fresh recruits along with Russian soldiers to achieve their prize.

As the cold sets in, the fields around Bakhmut remain muddy and wet, exposing troops to trench foot. With Ukraine being supplemented by NATO countries, their winter gear will be abundant compared to Russia’s. Further hampering Russian forces, there is little sign their troops are being rotated. It appears instead that once deployed, they remain in the country indefinitely.

So why has the Kremlin thrown everything it has into Bakhmut? The explanation itself is quite complicated.

Bakhmut Is One Man’s Prize

A breakthrough near Bakhmut earlier in the year would have enabled Russia to pressure the logistical hub of Kramatorsk. With Ukraine liberating Lyman earlier this fall and crippling the flow of traffic across the Kerch Bridge for several months, they have now hampered Russian supply lines in occupied areas, making the Russian push into Bakhmut meaningless. The only consolation prize now for the Russians is that Bakhmut is the only area where Moscow has advanced since Ukraine launched its counteroffensives.

Bakhmut represents a grand prize for Wagner, especially its founder, Prigozhin. Over the past several months, the oligarch has presented the group as Russia’s only formidable fighting force, in the face of Russian military disasters that were led by the Russian Ministry of Defense. Constant criticism is leveled against Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu by Prigozhin and Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.

Seeing a chance to seize a top-level position in the aftermath of Putin’s rule, Prigozhin will continue to throw resources into not only Bakhmut, but other cities such as Soledar where Wagner is commanding. This strategy could backfire. Influential Russian bloggers such as Igor Strelkov have said their lines continue to be stretched thin while Ukraine builds up forces in Zaporizhzhia.

Recently there have been massive strikes against Russian supply lines and military bases in the oblast, especially in the strategic city of Melitopol, whose location could make it a gateway for a Ukrainian march on Mariupol or Crimea. It is possible that Kyiv’s general command has ordered its garrison in Bakhmut to hold in order to drain Russian resources as much as possible. This is what they did during battles in Mariupol and Severodonetsk, both of which came at a major price for Moscow, despite Russian victories.

Bakhmut will be remembered as a hell on earth, with the kind of grueling conventional combat not seen between two nations since the Korean War. Both Russia and Ukraine will continue to take heavy casualties.

The battle and the overall war will come down to logistics in the upcoming winter: Whoever can better supply and equip their forces will hold the advantage.

Julian McBride, a former U.S. Marine, is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.

Written By

Julian McBride, a former U.S. Marine, is a forensic anthropologist and independent journalist born in New York. He reports and documents the plight of people around the world who are affected by conflicts, rogue geopolitics, and war, and also tells the stories of war victims whose voices are never heard. Julian is the founder and director of the Reflections of War Initiative (ROW), an anthropological NGO which aims to tell the stories of the victims of war through art therapy. As a former Marine, he uses this technique not only to help heal PTSD but also to share people’s stories through art, which conveys “the message of the brutality of war better than most news organizations.”



  1. 403Forbidden

    December 12, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    Bakhmut is where ukros relive the experience of stalingrad.

    Russian artillery regularly pounds the ukro positions in and around bakhmut and the defenders will have to wilt soon as the body and will succumb to the relentless shellfire.

    The strategy employed by russia at bakhmut is spot on and once bakhmut falls, biden will have to hurl a further 10 to 20 billion bucks for kyiv’s continuing war effort.

    Heads up, azovs, zelenskiyys !!! Old man biden will always be of great help to you.

  2. Commentar

    December 12, 2022 at 3:56 pm

    The ukraine fighters defending bakhmut will have to withdraw and leave the town as their positions slowly become untenable. Unless they prefer to die.

    Bakhmut is mostly (and secretly) pro-russian, and the remaining residents still huddled inside it, about 10,000 or less of them, don’t want the Kyiv forces around.

    The recent statement or admission by Merkel that the 2014 Minsk agreement was a shady job crafted to allow Ukrainian forces enough time to build a vast network of tunnels & trenches in Donbass must serve as an incentive for Russian army to eject the Ukrainians from bakhmut.

  3. Gary Jacobs

    December 12, 2022 at 7:15 pm

    403forgotten, Commentar…

    LoL, you Putinista Trolls make me laugh every time.

    Ukraine just completed a troop rotation in Bakhmut. The AFU transferred up to 3-4 brigades from different directions to Bakhmut, including the brigades that stood on the right bank of the Dnipro. There was a rotation of separate brigades that held defense in the suburbs of Bakhmut for a long time, which will increase the effectiveness of AFU troops.

    Several directions around Bakhmut are still under the control of the AFU troops.

    It is a much deserved rest for the troops rotated out, having held the town and its suburbs for the last couple of months. Now Russia’s hapless and weary Wagner convicts and conscripts have to continue their attacks against fresh, well equipped defenders. The Ukrainian troops in Kherson had the best, most modern gear we’ve yet seen. Now many are in Bakhmut.

    Russians have advanced in the Bakhmut area maybe a hundred square kilometers total in the last three months… In that same time period, Ukraine liberated 25,000 square kilometers in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts.

    And since Russians got creamed at trying to take Pavlivka and Vulhedar, where an entire naval infantry regiment has been wiped out attempting to get there through Pavlivka… and Vuhledar is high terrain, making it extremely difficult to approach over vast, open, agricultural steppe…Some Russian therefore got the bright idea, ‘why not go through Velyka Novosilka instead, which would cut off AFU supply lines to Pavlivka and Vuhledar from the west?’

    The problem is that Ukraine knows the importance of holding Velyka Novosilka as that entire stretch of front depends on it for supplies and Ukraine has turned the settlement into a stronghold.

    That didn’t stop Russia from attacking hard. And the end result looks something like this: 24 Russian tanks and eight armored infantry vehicles obliterated. A dramatic increase compared to the typical 2-3 tanks on an average day. In fact, we haven’t seen numbers this high since the liberation of Kharkiv oblast.

    Face it, Your fascist troops are getting creamed…and losing in massive numbers every day on the frontline.

    Ukraine is also striking deep behind the lines at troop concentrations, fuel depots, and logistics nodes.

    And all the Russians can do is strike at civilian energy infrastructure like the terrorists they are.

    Then you troll over here pretending you are winning. It may take me another 20minutes to stop laughing at you.

    Have a liberating day.

  4. Jacksonian Libertarian

    December 12, 2022 at 8:02 pm

    It’s clear that the strategic move for Ukraine is to cut the land bridge between Crimea and Donetsk by attacking by Melitopol and laying Harpoon missiles on the Azov Sea. This will cut both land communications and sea communications on the Azov Sea to Crimea and Kherson. Logistics is the Russian Achilles Heel.

    “Captains should study tactics, but Generals must study logistics.”

  5. Tamerlane

    December 13, 2022 at 12:52 am

    And you, as usual, do neither “non-Jacksonian non-libertarian”.

  6. Tamerlane

    December 13, 2022 at 1:32 am

    It’s become hell on earth because American policy makers decided to turn Ukraine’s “most corrupt government in Europe” into our proxy client state in order to bleed out Russia. They have decided that the risk of America losing our position as global hegemon as a result of backlash to our intervention and seizure of the sovereign wealth of a nuclear superpower is worth taking, if Russia can be weakened and Ukraine’s oligarch run kleptocracy saved…

    We’ll see if that calculus is correct, or whether deliberately fostering a fundamental challenge to the USD’s position of global reserve currency over Ukraine is a risk worth taking…

  7. Serhio

    December 13, 2022 at 3:18 am

    It is much easier to kill all Ukrainians near Bakhmut from long-range artillery than to attack in different places and incur losses. Russians are sitting in warm trenches, and Ukrainians are brought from other fronts (weakening the defense in those places) and put in front of guns. Bakhmut has already been almost completely destroyed. The more Ukrainian soldiers die in Bakhmut, the less other cities will be destroyed in the future.

  8. Partner

    December 13, 2022 at 4:41 am

    The article is good, but there is one inaccuracy: Prigogine will never be able to replace Putin in his post. Any attempt to do so will be immediately destroyed by Russia’s special services.

  9. aldol11

    December 13, 2022 at 5:28 am

    It seems that, in fact, Ukrainian army’s objective is to drive to melitopol and split the front in two , therefore denying resupply to the Russians in Crimea.
    on the other hand the Russian army is looking for a political lip service assault on Bakhmut, which has limited strategic value

  10. Yrral

    December 13, 2022 at 7:43 am

    Fighting too the last Ukrainain,lots of American are delusional about Ukrainain winning,when has the last time the US won a decisive conflict,where they dictated the term,not lately and the same can be said about Ukrane

  11. Partner

    December 13, 2022 at 8:24 am

    Tamerlane: You listen less to Trump’s opinion about Ukraine. It is the European Union that is now being ravaged by corruption scandals. And the leadership of Hungary is generally some kind of surrealism. Listening to Trump is losing the truth.

  12. Putin Apologist

    December 13, 2022 at 10:31 am

    Russia’s immediate goal in Ukraine is to annihilate the Ukrainian military’s capacity to defend the country, not to take and hold territory. With over 200,000 KIA, Ukrainians troops and foreign mercenaries, and maybe twice that number WIA (source: Douglas Macgregor, retired U.S. Army Colonel) it looks like Russia is well on her way to achieving this goal.

  13. marcjf

    December 13, 2022 at 2:40 pm

    The pro-Russian take on this is that Bakhmut is a key logistical centre and its loss woud cause a retreat to the last defence line c 20 km to the west. I am not so sure myself. There is an awful lot of ground in Ukraine and all can be used to build defences, and there is not a lot of that ground now that Bakhmut can be used to supply to the east.

    My take is that this is more of a political struggle – aka Verdun. And like Verdun where the French army went through hell, so will the UAF. But unless the RF achieve a quick victory, the precedent says it too will experience the same hell.

    All press reports on losses are garbage so you have to form your own view. Mine is that the UAF will be suffering higher and maybe severe losses just now but that can change.

    It really depends on whether or not the Russian Army is capable of mobile offensive operations. And time is running short for them to provide that proof IMHO.

  14. Jim

    December 13, 2022 at 3:32 pm

    This kind of article brings out the “Baghdad Bobs” to claim Ukraine is “winning.”

    But even The Daily Telegraph (UK) Dec. 10, spells it out in their headline:

    “Ukraine forces sucked into ‘meat grinder’ of Bakhmut”

    Although, their sub headline claims it’s unimportant.

    Of course, that begs the question: why feed soldiers into the meat grinder if it’s unimportant?

    Reading the comments, here, reaffirms the necessity of taking territory & cities… if for no other reason than to make it undeniable that Ukraine is losing.

    I get it… what is important is to destroy the Ukrainian military… but as is evident, here, the Ukraine die-hard’s will never admit the truth until a failure do so makes them into undeniable fools & obvious liars.

    Fanatics never stop on their own… they must be stopped… caught & held accountable, in this case, for the falsehoods & failures of their fevered & grandiose scheme.

    Held accountable by their own metrics of success they, themselves, put out at the start of this operation.

    So far, nothing has gone according to plan.

    So, again, by their own words, will they be held to account.

  15. Dave Nelson

    December 14, 2022 at 2:10 am

    Baghdad Bobs indeed and just as laughably transparent stupid liars.

    How do the Russians warm their trenches? Farts? It is December. Many of them are still wearing summer clothes, most have too little food, not much shelter. Fighting in winter is pure hell and the weak Russian logistics (all the good stuff was stolen already — and don’t try to deny that) hamper them far more than any logistical issue hampers the Ukrainians who are supplied on interior lines.

    And for what? Bakhmut? That is not worth much at all. OTOH if the Ukrainians push south past Melitopol it will be close to game over for any Russian unit west of there.

    Hasta la vista BABY!

  16. dave

    December 14, 2022 at 2:16 am

    Gary Jacobs I`m laughing at you. Get a clue. Half a million Ukrainian casualties. They`re on life support. The money, and weapons are for money laundering. Not much seen by anyone.

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