The Russian siege of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut has been going on since last May. The small town, located in a strategically important place, is slowly reaching the significance of the French city of Verdun during World War I. To gain control of Bakhmut, the two kindred nations of Russia and Ukraine are fighting, not sparing human life, weapons, or ammunition.
In February 1916, World War I, originally planned for six weeks, had been going on for a year and a half. German Chief of Staff Erich von Falkenhayn then designated a military target as the goal of the German efforts, the capture of which could bring the end of the war closer in several ways.
This was the fortress system of Verdun, later known as ‘the blood pump’ or ‘the bone mill.’
Falkenhayn knew that the French could not give up the Meuse Valley guarded by Verdun or the routes leading to Paris and the supply positions on the Belgian front. The German plan was that, as a result of the attack, the losses suffered during the French effort to recapture the fort would bleed the French army out, and the material battle would result in its collapse.
Eventually, though, the campaign, which raged for ten months, did not produce lasting results despite the 150,000 dead and 600,000 wounded on each side, as the German losses were close to reaching those of the French due to the concentration of the French artillery being similar to that of the Germans.
The images depicting the environment transformed into a moonscape, the trenches, and the almost continuous artillery fire became symbols of the devastation of WWI.
Seeing the destroyed buildings of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, which still had a population of 73,000 in 2020, one inevitably thinks of Verdun. However, the comparison is valid for another reason: as fighting has been going on since May in the area mainly besieged by the mercenaries of Russia’s Wagner Group, a shadowy Russian mercenary organization, both sides attach more importance to the area than its real military value.
Russian forces, redeployed after the failure of their first attempt in February, focused primarily on this area, Donbas, during the attack launched in April. Even then, questions were raised about why the Russians were attacking the best-protected area frontally instead of enclosing it.
In the course of the conflict that has been ongoing between the two sides since 2014, the Ukrainian armed forces significantly strengthened the territories of the breakaway republics that remained in Ukrainian hands and established three lines of defence in the region.
Similar to the position systems of WWI, cities were the strongest points of these lines consisting of trenches and dug-outs often reinforced with steel sheets. Lysychansk and Severodonetsk were the cities of the first line, after the loss of which the Russians hit the second line named after Bakhmut–Soledar. Behind them remains only the third line of the cities of Konstantinovka and Kramatorsk, whose loss would not only be of symbolic importance but also leave the steppe—i.e., the vast open areas that are difficult to defend—exposed to attackers.
What is particularly interesting about the ongoing battles for Bakhmut is that the Russian leadership is apparently paying special attention to it as well. From the Ukrainian side, the perception of ‘not a single step back’ is, of course, understandable. However, the only area that was not affected by the Russian’s great retreat this summer was this region, too.
Basically, the slow advance of the Wagner Group’s mercenaries has been going on here since May, so much so that in August, even the Ukrainian General Staff admitted that heavy fighting was going on in the area while, almost everywhere else, Russian troops were in general retreat. Despite the stiffening of the front lines, the slow advance of the mercenaries continued and, according to news reports, even the elite paratrooper units withdrawn from Kherson arrived in the region. By October, Sky News stated that the fall of the city was close.
By the beginning of December, it became clear what the Russian intentions were, as fighting flared up in more and more villages around Bakhmut and Soledar. Although little is known about the whereabouts of the incoming mobilized reserves, satellites reveal that instead of a comprehensive Russian offensive, a grinding attack seems to have been launched.
Since it is impossible to obtain accurate information about ongoing operations, there are only indirect signs of the severity of the fighting, such as the fact that President Zelensky personally visited Bakhmut shortly before his trip to the United States and, on the same day, General Zaluzhnyi, the Ukrainian chief of staff, asked the political leadership in a video message to tighten the penalties imposed for desertion and violation of military discipline. Official statements about the recapture or occupation of certain settlements can provide a reliable clue, although these should also be subject to reservations.
Artillery plays a major role in this type of combat. Even the outdated Russian artillery can achieve considerable success in defeating established positions, so it is conceivable that the rumours about heavy Ukrainian losses are true.
Due to the rumoured shortage of Western/European artillery ammunition circulating in the press since this summer, as well as the slow depletion of Soviet-origin technology, it is questionable at what level the Ukrainian armed forces can respond to this.
However, two articles published on Telegram clearly show that, due to the significant use of ammunition, the Russians have also encountered difficulties. According to the information available, by the end of December, the continuous supply of artillery ammunition was interrupted on the Russian side as well.
‘Dva Majora’ (Two Majors), a source proven to be quite reliable, wrote about artillery depots installed within weapons range of drones and HIMARS missiles, which are constantly prime targets of Ukrainian missile attacks, so their regular loss can also contribute to disruptions. In a recording from another source, two Wagnerites standing next to an old MT–12 100 mm anti-tank gun complain about Russian Chief of Staff Gerasimov, who is known to have bad relations with the owner of the Wagner Group, because of the lack of ammunition.
To summarize, since the announcement of the partial Russian mobilization, there has been speculation as to where the conscripts will be deployed, and we have received at least a partial answer to this question.
Bakhmut and the neighbouring Soledar are slowly growing into becoming as important as Verdun.
It seems that both sides are determined in their desire to possess the area. The real question, however, remains the long-term impact of the struggles taking place there: will they bring the collapse of one of the armies closer, or will they be just another bloody chapter in the prolonged Russo–Ukrainian war?