Mapping the battle for Bakhmut in Ukraine | War news Russia-Ukraine

The frontline city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine has been at the center of fierce fighting for months.

Fighting intensified this week, but Ukrainian forces appear to be holding their own against the Russians, who recently claimed to have taken the nearby salt mining town of Soledar – a victory Kiev denies.

If the Russian forces or the Wagner mercenaries also fighting in eastern Ukraine or both succeed in capturing Bakhmut, the fall of Moscow would be the most significant victory after months of humiliating setbacks.

Famous for its winemaking, the city is symbolically relevant to Ukrainians for whom “Hold Bakhmut” is now a popular slogan.

Plumes of smoke rise from a Russian strike
Plumes of smoke rise from a Russian attack in the frontline city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine on January 7, 2023, during a 36-hour Orthodox Christmas ceasefire declared by Russian President Vladimir Putin [Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters]

Bakhmut’s pre-war population was about 70,000. Today, an estimated 2,000 citizens remain in the city; many survive in squalid conditions as the conflict rages.

Al Jazeera’s Charles Stratford, reporting about a kilometer away from Bakhmut, said residents occasionally risk their lives to reach a volunteer center in the heart of the city to get hot food and drink.

“There has been no water supply in the city since October and no electricity since August,” he said.

Russia targets Bakhmut

After Russian troops captured the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in the Luhansk region in June and July, Moscow launched a brutal offensive on Bakhmut in the neighboring Donetsk region.

It has used familiar tactics and advanced with destructive ground attacks on settlements south of the city.

In late July, Moscow made territorial gains around Bakhmut and Avdiivka and took control of the Vuhlehirska Thermal Power Plant southeast of Bakhmut. Russia also seized Ukrainian barricades around the Butivka coal mine southwest of Avdiivka following Ukraine’s withdrawal from the area.

In August, Russian troops and mercenaries with the Wagner Group pushed towards Bakhmut with more airstrikes and shelling. Wagner Group mercenaries also broke through Ukrainian defenses on the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut.

In October, Russian forces were able to push into Bakhmut’s northeastern and southern suburbs, but were eventually driven off by Ukrainian counter-attacks.


Escalation in winter

By November, with Bakhmut enduring relentless shelling from Russian artillery, the battle had turned into trench warfare and hundreds were reported killed and wounded on both sides each day.

Kiev said Russia suffered heavy casualties and many of the dead belonged to the Wagner Group. Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Wagner chief, offered to pardon convicts if they joined the group and fought for six months. Since Prigozhin’s offer, some have been released.

With neither side making significant gains, civilians were forced to take shelter in basements prone to flooding.

By the end of November, Russian forces had advanced to Bakhmut’s southern front and captured settlements such as Ozarianivka, a village 15 km southwest of the city.

Still, according to the then-Institute for the Study of War, the Russian advance was unlikely to generate “operational-level effects”.

On December 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Bakhmut, where he urged Ukrainian fighters to keep their morale high.

Conquest of Soledar

On January 13, Moscow said its forces had taken control of the nearby Ukrainian salt mining town of Soledar after weeks of heavy fighting.

Russia’s defense ministry said the capture was possible because of Moscow’s “continuous bombardment of the enemy” using rockets, artillery and aircraft.

Kiev denies that Soledar was captured and says Ukrainian troops are holding out.

The Russian ministry said control of Soledar would allow its troops to cut off Ukrainian supply lines in Bakhmut and then “block and surround Ukrainian units there”.

Taking Bakhmut would also open a route for Russian troops to push into Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, Ukrainian strongholds in the Donbas region that Moscow hopes to take full control of.

A Ukrainian soldier who identified himself as Sergey told Al Jazeera in Bakhmut that Russian ground forces have carried out massive attacks on Kiev positions in recent months.

“They send their troops like waves,” Sergey said. “We can’t stop them every time because we have fewer guys and unfortunately lost a lot of guys.”

During his visit to the frontline, Zelenskyy said that Russia had also suffered many casualties: “The whole country near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes. This is what madness looks like.”

Described as one of the bloodiest campaigns of the war, the battle for Bakhmut continues.

(Al Jazeera)

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