Since late May, Bakhmut in the Donetsk Oblast has been the site of extremely heavy fighting. Yet, until recently, the city had garnered relatively little media attention compared to the successive Ukrainian victories in Kharkov and Kherson. This has changed as of late, with #Bakhmut trending regularly on Twitter and a flood of news reports and opinion pieces on the battle published daily.
Taking Bakhmut is requisite to Russia winning the wider war in the Donbas — a chief strategic objective for Moscow and another step toward its goal of ultimately turning Ukraine into a dysfunctional rump state. It is therefore heavily fortified, and the Ukrainians have dug in deep, thus far fending off Russian advances. This is despite being under constant heavy artillery fire and air bombardment that has levelled entire sections of the city. In doing so, the defenders have sustained serious hits, with the New York Times detailing how doctors at the city’s only hospital report ‘an almost unending stream of Ukrainian casualties.’
Further, emerging developments indicate that the situation is deteriorating for the Ukrainians, as Russian Wagner Group mercenaries and other aligned forces intensify offensive pressure and make incremental gains with the intent of enveloping the city. Wagner and other personnel in the area have recently been reinforced by conventional Russian soldiers rerouted from the southern city of Kherson and the possible future arrival of mobilised forces. Wagner itself has been replenishing its losses and building its ranks through public recruitment activities and the hiring of prison inmates.
Even with the newly-arrived reinforcements in place, the group continues to play a leading role in the campaign, and there is no doubt that the organisation’s controversial leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, wants it to be his men having their photos taken in the town square if or when Bakhmut is taken. Some Western commentators have asserted that the Russians are suffering heavy losses only to capture a city they view as strategically insignificant. But the response by the Ukrainian military and simple geography seem to disprove this narrative. Ukraine has been pouring reinforcements into Bakhmut to prevent Russia from opening the gateway to the next major defensive line, which includes the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. On 6th December, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the latter of these two cities, in part to boost morale and ease anxieties about Russian advances.
If Wagner spearheads a successful campaign with this objective— after months of humiliating blunders, losses, and setbacks for Russia — it would provide a considerable military and political victory for the Kremlin and elevate the ‘Orchestra’s’ standing in Moscow.
A win of this magnitude could reverberate well beyond the Donbas as, in addition to Ukraine, Wagner reportedly operates in Syria, Mali, and the Central African Republic, among other countries. With the world watching, Wagner leading the mission to capture Bakhmut could potentially boost international demand for their services. And since the group works hand in glove with the Kremlin, this would ultimately mean greater Russian influence in these countries. Wagner could be the vehicle for Putin to extend his reach ever further.