For the better part of seven months, the Russian forces have been trying to capture the Ukrainian town of Bakhmut.
But why is that?
Similarly, why does the Ukrainian military keep committing troops to a town that has little strategic value?
A Political Battle
For the Russian side, fighting for Bakhmut is largely a political fight.
The Russian military has failed to achieve any of its major objectives on the ground.
As such, the Kremlin has had to repeatedly revise its goals in Ukraine.
Right now, the main priority for the Russian leadership is to capture the whole of the Donbas, that is, the Donetsk and Luhansk provinces—Bakhmut is in the former.
By doing so, the Kremlin seeks to consolidate its grip in the eastern part of Ukraine and thus present some sort of victory to an increasingly weary Russian population.
But for the Ukrainians, the Battle of Bakhmut is taking place for different reasons.
A Strategic Battle
For the Ukrainian side, fighting for Bakhmut is largely a strategic fight.
In staying in and fighting it out for the town, the Ukrainians are forcing the Russian commanders to commit many troops that could have been used elsewhere.
“While the costs associated with Ukraine’s continued defense of Bakhmut are significant and likely include opportunity costs related to potential Ukrainian counter-offensive operations elsewhere, Ukraine would also have paid a significant price for allowing Russian troops to take Bakhmut easily,” the Institute for the Study of War assessed in one of its operational updates on the conflict.
Indeed, despite the paradox of defending a town with little strategic value, the Ukrainian decision to fight for Bakhmut is strategically right, despite the heavy losses they are taking.
The Russian forces have been gaining ground around Bakhmut lately, especially in the north and south of the town.
In some places, the Russian troops are just 200 meters from the center of Bakhmut.
Russian commanders are trying to encircle the town and cut off the Ukrainian lines of communication that lead to Bakhmut, very much like they did in Mariupol last spring.
However, it seems highly unlikely that the Ukrainian military will allow its forces to be trapped inside Bakhmut.
More likely, the Ukrainian commanders will pull out their troops at the last possible moment and surrender the town rather than lose precious, battle-hardened troops. Bakhmut, for the Ukrainians, has been an excellent opportunity to contain and degrade the Russian military.
Bakhmut isn’t likely to fall in the next few days. But the Ukrainians can’t deny that the Russian forces have been making progress.
For now, Kyiv has used the battle to fixate the Russian forces in a particular area.
If the Ukrainian defenders can hold until the conditions for their counteroffensive are ripe, Bakhmut could be very costly indeed for the Russians.
Expert Biography: A 19FortyFive Defense and National Security Columnist, Stavros Atlamazoglou is a seasoned defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is currently working towards a Master’s Degree in Strategy and Cybersecurity at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). His work has been featured in Business Insider, Sandboxx, and SOFREP.