DAVID PATRIKARAKOS: Why the setback in the battle for Bakhmut may hold the key to ultimate triumph for Ukraine

Volodymyr Zelensky put it most poignantly. ‘It’s a pity, it’s a tragedy, but for today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,’ the Ukrainian president said yesterday.

The vicious battle for this eastern Ukrainian city appears to be more or less over – for now.

On Saturday, Yevgeny Prigozhin – the shaven-headed boss of Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary group – boasted that Bakhmut had been captured.

Flanked by some of his goons and leering into the camera, he claimed Wagner now controlled the city. A day later, Vladimir Putin himself announced that Russia had won the battle for Bakhmut.

Russian forces – alongside Wagner’s hired killers – have been trying to capture the city since last year. It has been the longest battle of the war, and certainly the bloodiest.

Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin (pictured) claimed his forces have full control Bakhmut – which Kyiv denies – in a video recorded in front of destroyed buildings as explosions are heard in the distance

Russian mercenaries declared victory in the city of Bakhmut

When I was there earlier this year, the city was a smouldering ruin. Buildings were cratered by shells, roads strewn with the scars of rockets and drones. Now, Mr Zelensky says, Bakhmut – once home to 75,000 souls – is utterly destroyed.

Putin and Prigozhin may be gloating – but they know what a Pyrrhic victory this truly is. Even if the city has fallen – and I am reliably told that Ukrainian resistance continues fiercely – the battle exposes two truths about this war: The insanity, chaos and total disregard for human life at the heart of Putin’s unprovoked invasion; and the ferocity and growing tactical intelligence of Ukraine’s defence.

Bakhmut has no real strategic value, but Russia has been sending its men to die there for almost ten months. Why? For no other reason than Putin is determined to make good on his fantastical promise to take the entire Donbas region. This is madness.

But it is a madness the Ukrainians have exploited. In recent weeks, under the brilliant generalship of their commander, Oleksandr Syrsky, they have recaptured several kilometres of territory there.

It was in Bakhmut that Syrsky pioneered what he calls ‘active defence’ – using the resistance of the city to grind down Russian troops, killing as many as possible and tying up the rest so they cannot be deployed elsewhere.

Inevitably, this has given the Ukrainians more badly needed time to prepare for their imminent counter-offensive to recapture conquered lands.

Last night, Mr Zelensky said that Bakhmut now resembled the Japanese city of Hiroshima after it was hit with an atomic bomb in 1945. But he added that the battle was not over. ‘Bakhmut is not occupied by Russia Federation as of today,’ he insisted.

Smoke rises from buildings in this aerial view of Bakhmut, the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian troops in the Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Western officials estimate between 20,000 and 30,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the ‘meat grinder’ of Bakhmut. As one officer told me: ‘Every Russian we kill here is one less my comrades have to kill elsewhere.’

And that’s not all. Bakhmut has also been useful in exposing the vicious internal clashes between Prigozhin and the Russian army, laying bare the tensions and contradictions at the heart of Putin’s strategy, such as it is.

In recent months, Prigozhin has launched a series of obscenity-laden diatribes against Russian army chief Valery Gerasimov and minister of defence Sergei Shoigu, accusing them of failing to provide enough ammunition for his troops, and of serial incompetence. If the might of the Russian army has been exposed as a lie in the city, so has its political unity.

In more ways than one, then, Bakhmut has become the graveyard of Russian ambitions.

Now the Ukrainians are better-placed to counter-attack across the south and east.

And in Bakhmut, they are preparing what the army spokesman calls ‘the conditions … to push [the Russians] back’. Kyiv’s troops are hiding in the suburbs, making it almost impossible for the Russians to occupy the city properly.

Yesterday Igor Girkin, Russia’s former federal security service officer – who was key to both the 2014 annexation of Crimea and later the war in Donbas – gave a brutal assessment on his blog. The battle for Bakhmut was unnecessary and its victory is hollow, he wrote. Russian forces are now reduced to salvaging an empty success as propaganda.

The Ukrainians, meanwhile, stand ready to strike in several places, where they will likely be met by weakened Russian resistance. This is Syrsky’s ‘active defence’ writ large – and buttressed, of course, by the fact that much-needed F-16 fighter jets may soon be on their way to Ukraine following the G7 meeting in Japan last week. The fall of Bakhmut may look like a disaster, then. But in this event may lie the keys to Ukraine’s ultimate triumph.

If this is what a Russian victory looks like, the Ukrainians might be willing to see more of them.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd’s foreign correspondent and the author of War In 140 Characters

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