Comment: Little for Russia to celebrate in fall of Bakhmut

At great cost, Russian mercenaries have kept their leader in Putin’s good graces. Now Russia waits for Ukraine’s next move.

By Leonid Bershidsky / Bloomberg Opinion

The eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, captured by Russian forces after more than 220 days of house-to-house fighting, is unique in that it comes with its own supply of bubbly to celebrate the victory. The workers of Artwinery, one of eastern Europe’s biggest producers of sparkling wine, only managed to evacuate about a million bottles from cellars 236 feet underground in 200-year-old gypsum mines, leaving 9 million bottles behind. The question is whether this Pyrrhic victory is to be toasted, or whether the defiant winemakers, who moved production to the Odessa region, will save what was once known as “Soviet Champagne” to celebrate the town’s eventual Ukrainian liberators.

The battle for Bakhmut, the most protracted of the war so far, could also have been the bloodiest. The Russian occupation authorities estimated Ukrainian losses at 15,000 to 20,000 dead last month, though propaganda outlets have cited numbers up to 40,000. President Biden has said that Russia has “suffered over 100,000 casualties in Bakhmut.” In any case, it’s likely that more people died or were wounded in the fighting than the 70,000 residents of Bakhmut before the war; a population now almost completely gone, save for a few dozen desperate souls hiding out in basements.

The losses are not quite on the scale of Verdun, which resulted in about 700,000 casualties in World War I. Ukrainians still haven’t officially recognized the loss of Bakhmut, but they would like it to have been Russia’s equivalent of the fight for that small French town, which tied up and sapped the invading German army’s forces long enough to prepare a successful attack elsewhere. That has been the ongoing rationale for the protracted, costly defense of Bakhmut from Ukraine’s military spokespeople and experts.

Russian propagandists, for their part, have made a similar counterclaim: that Russian commanders, in particular Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner mercenary force, had intentionally lured Ukrainians into the Bakhmut “meat grinder,” bleeding the reserves Kyiv would otherwise use for a counteroffensive. The ploy would also deplete as much of Ukraine’s Western equipment as possible.

“They created a semi-encirclement of Bakhmut,” pro-Kremlin political scientist Sergei Markov wrote on his Telegram channel. “This was an interesting decision. It created an illusion for [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskiy that Bakhmut could be held. Zelenskiy kept throwing more and more Ukrainian military resources at this, and Wagner kept destroying them.”

Both sides are treating this phase of the war as one of attrition, at least before the start of the long-heralded Ukrainian counteroffensive. But they don’t address why the fiercest fighting focused on this tiny part of the 600-mile front line. The Russian invaders, after all, could have elected to fight for the territory they’d lost in the Kharkiv region so they could again threaten Ukrainian fortresses such as Slovyansk and Kramatorsk with encirclement.

They could also have tried to expand their gains in the Zaporizhzhia region, already declared Russian territory by the Kremlin. They could have sent Wagner, which markets itself as incapable of retreat, to push Ukrainian forces farther away from Donetsk, the biggest city in Russia-occupied Ukraine. Now, the front line is no more than 15 kilometers away from it, making Donetsk vulnerable to a wide range of Ukrainian weaponry.

Instead, they chose to bang their heads against Bakhmut’s defenses, which included a large network of tunnels like the ones where Artwinery’s bottles were stored.

Ukrainians, too, could have chosen to give up Bakhmut and use the troops to look for weaknesses in the Russian lines, like the ones they discovered last fall which resulted in the recovery of a large swathe of territory in the Kharkiv region. While they defended “fortress Bakhmut,” as it came to be known in the official discourse, the Russian military constructed bastions on long stretches of the front that should make such Ukrainian lightning strikes much more difficult.

Prigozhin’s ambitions, both entrepreneurial and now apparently also political, were likely the main reason Russia persevered in Bakhmut. The regular Russian military, demoralized by Kharkiv region defeat and the forced withdrawal from Kherson in southern Ukraine, needed time to regroup, train hundreds of thousands of new recruits, accumulate weapons and ammunition, internalize the realities of modern drone war; in other words, to adapt. A recent report from the United Kingdom’s Royal Services Institute argues it has, to a large extent, done so.

Prigozhin, for his part, needed victories to maintain a high public profile and win Kremlin protection for his private army, which operates on a shaky legal foundation, So Wagner attacked relentlessly; first in the salt mining town of Soledar and then in Bakhmut, fighting to the point of exhaustion. Prigozhin now says the force will pull back to rebuild itself. Wagner is leaving the front lines unbeaten, an important point for the legend he is conjuring up at the price of thousands of his fighters’ lives.

“OK OK, it’s your victory, all yours,” Igor Girkin — aka Strelkov, a veteran of Russia’s Ukraine wars and a harsh critic of both Prigozhin and the military command — wrote on his Telegram channel. “A district center, no less, in four months and with losses that require your entire corps to be reconstituted because it’s no longer battle-ready. Be proud!”

Strelkov’s sarcasm aside, however, Prigozhin and his mercenary corps have earned official congratulations from President Vladimir Putin; as much of a personal security guarantee as one can count on in today’s Russia. Unfortunately for Prigozhin, it is only extended while he continues playing a part in the invasion, which means he needs to find more recruits to send against the next fortress or face being sidelined and squashed by his many enemies in the Russian bureaucracy.

On the Ukrainian side, Zelenskiy has made sure Bakhmut acquired a symbolic status, complete with a music video viewed 13 million times on YouTube and the ceremonial handover of a battle flag from the town to the U.S. Congress. Even now, Ukraine’s military says the Russian forces in Bakhmut are “semi-encircled,” a claim that finds little support on war theater maps. It’s important to Ukrainian morale that some kind of defensive operation continue, even if the fighting goes on outside the city limits. Bakhmut’s fall isn’t great for Zelenskiy’s ceaseless campaign to obtain more Western weapons, including long-range missiles and aircraft.

One could argue, however, that Zelenskiy’s dogged stand on “fortress Bakhmut” has served a more important purpose than merely supporting a domestic and international narrative. It has sent a powerful message to the Russian military: If Moscow makes a push toward Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, both fortified at least as well as Bakhmut, it will need to expend even more lives and materiel. This message likely will be heeded, at least in the short-to-medium term. Unlike Wagner, which needs a heroic reputation to avoid absorption in the regular military or dissolution, the regular troops aren’t motivated enough to send wave upon wave of attackers against massive defenses built up over eight years.

Lacking the stomach for more battles like the Bakhmut one, Russian generals will be hard put to use the meager military advantages they have extracted from taking the town, such as straighter supply lines and a shorter distance between the Russian artillery and Ukraine’s next echelon of defense. With Prigozhin’s self-serving passion dampened by the need to reconstitute his tattered force, the Russian troops will be squarely on the defensive, apart from sporadic attempts to push forward on the outskirts of Donetsk.

The invading army is left to wonder what will happen next. When will the Ukrainian counteroffensive materialize? Why does Zelenskiy feel secure enough to take much-publicized overseas trips? Russian soldiers in the trenches must deal with rumors that Ukrainian forces are massing against Donetsk, or even the Russian city of Belgorod.

This is not a great position to be in a year and three months into what was supposed to be a blitzkrieg. In that sense, Bakhmut, turned into a desert by the fighting, has served and is still serving its purpose for Ukraine.

The Russian forces had better leave any sparkling wine still sitting in Bakhmut cellars alone. It’s too early to pop the bubbly.

Leonid Bershidsky, formerly Bloomberg Opinion’s Europe columnist, is a member of the Bloomberg News Automation Team. He recently published Russian translations of George Orwell’s “1984” and Franz Kafka’s “The Trial.”

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