Battle for Bakhmut could be a turning point in Russia-Ukraine war
Recent months have seen a flowering of attempted diplomatic solutions to the Ukraine conflict. China proposed its own solution, followed by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s mooted “peace coalition,” in addition to the peace initiative launched by six African nations and the spiritual diplomacy of Pope Francis. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky continues to rally global support, last week traveling to Jeddah to ask for support from the leaders at the Arab League Summit and then giving a speech at the G7 Summit, where he called on world leaders to prevent future wars by guaranteeing new weapons and sanctions against Moscow. So, where are we when it comes to the fighting and potential quieting of live conflict?
In the early weeks of the conflict, Russia rapidly advanced and took many areas of Ukraine, including some suburbs of Kyiv and many areas in the northeast around Sumy. Russian forces bombarded Kharkiv, controlled territories in the east and south as far as Kherson and surrounded the city of Mariupol. However, thanks to the strong Western military support for Ukraine that had arrived by last October, the picture changed significantly. Russia withdrew from the north and failed to take Kyiv. Ukraine pushed Russia back from Kharkiv and counterattacked around Kherson. Currently, Ukraine is in control of Kherson and has largely surrounded the Russian advance in the east.
The most-discussed recent battle has been the one for Bakhmut, which has been called the war’s longest-running sustained fight. This city sits in a geographically important location and is seen as key to securing the whole of the Donbas (the collective name for the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk).
The assault on Bakhmut city was started by Wagner Group fighters last October. By the beginning of 2023, Ukrainian troops had withdrawn from the town of Soledar, located to the north of Bakhmut. On May 8, Kyiv confirmed its forces had withdrawn from Popasna, about 24 km east of the city. Wider attention was drawn to this battlefield when Yevgeny Prigozhin, the chief of the Wagner mercenary group, appeared in an emotional video, accusing Russian generals of a range of supply and coordination failures and threatening his group’s withdrawal from Bakhmut by May 10.
This city sits in a geographically important location and is seen as key to securing the whole of the Donbas
Dr. Diana Galeeva
Blaming Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and the army’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov for the losses of Wagner personnel due to a lack of ammunition, he promised to leave the besieged eastern Ukrainian city. Despite this, the Wagner Group was still in Bakhmut when Prigozhin’s May 10 deadline passed.
Even though the Wagner Group did not withdraw, Prigozhin again complained about ammunition supplies. “We’re scraping by with a minimal quantity of shells,” he said in an audio statement. Further, on the evening of May 10, there were new updates on the situation on the ground, when a Ukrainian unit stated that it had routed a Russian infantry brigade on front-line territory near Bakhmut. A day later, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi commented that Russian units in some parts of Bakhmut had retreated by 2 km because of counterattacks.
Last Friday, Ukraine stated that it had repelled attacks by Russian forces aiming to recapture ground around Bakhmut. The next day, Prigozhin claimed that the Wagner Group had captured the city.
There are different views about whether this will prove to be a turning point in the war, but it clearly depends now on Ukraine’s counteroffensive. President Zelensky, who stated that Bakhmut “is not occupied” by Russia, has already secured fresh military aid through his attendance at the G7 Summit. US President Joe Biden declared a new military aid package worth $375 million, in addition to the $1.2 billion already committed at the beginning of this month. Meanwhile, Canada and Latvia agreed to jointly train Ukrainian soldiers on Latvian soil, beginning on May 15. This adds to Canada’s existing training efforts in Poland and the UK.
This week, after the events in Bakhmut, either Ukrainian saboteurs or armed Russian opposition groups entered Russia from Ukraine via Belgorod. In response, Moscow declared a “counterterrorism operation,” giving special powers to officials, as Russians stated that drones were shot down by anti-aircraft weapons. Ukraine denies responsibility and has said the attackers were Russian citizens from two paramilitary groups, the Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps. Russia said that the purpose of this action was to draw attention away from Bakhmut, “to minimize the political effect of the loss of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut) by the Ukrainian side,” according to Presidential Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov.
The outcome may define what is possible politically, as well as militarily, for either side in terms of a final settlement
Dr. Diana Galeeva
Among the prevailing points of debate is the importance of this sub-conflict for the Kremlin. On the one hand, Bakhmut is a much lesser prize than the attempted seizure of Kyiv, but on the other it is a key zone in terms of Russia’s objective of maintaining control of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, especially after the referendums and legislative annexations of 2022.
By contrast, Ukraine’s stance is clear. It will only consider a peace plan if it meets its central condition: The reestablishment of its pre-2014 borders, including the consolidation of Crimea within its own territories. This makes this current moment and the expected counteroffensive so important. The outcome may define what is possible politically, as well as militarily, for either side in terms of a final settlement.
Zelensky has repeatedly sought military support from Ukraine’s Western allies, so naturally much of the discussion has focused on these talks. Several states have committed considerable funds and resources to this effort, showing their investment in the outcome. However, it is also important to take into account the Russian economy and the stances taken by so-far neutral actors in their relations with Moscow. These national interests — notwithstanding acknowledgements of Ukrainian suffering and in some cases offering humanitarian aid — include the potential economic opportunities created by the sanctions against Russia.
The situation around Bakhmut may influence the course of future collaborations and markets. It is certainly of interest to keep an eye on the delicate balancing act being performed here between courting global opinion and Western relations, while also securing nationally advantageous future links.
- Dr. Diana Galeeva is a former academic visitor to St. Antony’s College, Oxford University (2019-2022). Twitter: @Dr_GaleevaDiana