Why Russia is fighting so hard for Ukraine's Bakhmut

Fierce fighting in eastern Ukraine’s Soledar is ongoing as Russia hopes to take full control of the salt mining town and surround its bigger prize: Bakhmut.

The city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of Ukraine is strategically important to the war, but has taken outsized significance as Russia seeks to score a rare military victory, whatever the human cost. 

For Russia, control of the city would likely lay the groundwork for a push northwest, toward the larger cities of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, said Branislav Slantchev, a political science professor at the University of California, San Diego who studies the conduct of war.

Slantchev said taking Bakhmut would be a tremendous “morale booster” for the Russian war effort and would also pose difficulties for Ukraine in settlements across the Donetsk.

“It’s an important transport hub, a lot of supply lines go through there and Russia could use it as a base,” Slantchev said. “It’s fairly well fortified, so it would be difficult to take it back.”

But Russia has been unable to take Bakhmut for months, despite constant shelling and veritable trench warfare with Ukrainian troops. Controlling Soledar, just a few miles away, would help them encircle the city and press in from a new direction in the north.

Since a failed bid to take Kyiv early in the war, Russia has switched gears to focus on the Donbas, made up of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, including Bakhmut — which for months has seen some of the heaviest fighting in the war. 

Russia does not appear to have the entirety of Soledar within its grasp, although it made significant gains this week through brutal tactics, including leveling the town with artillery strikes and throwing a mass wave of soldiers, many who were taken prisoner at Ukraine’s lines.

The Kremlin on Wednesday said changing tactics helped make advances in Soledar, according to Russian news agency Tass.

John Herbst, the senior director of the Eurasia Center for the Atlantic Council, said the fighting in Bakhmut and Soledar is almost entirely being conducted by the Wagner Group, a mercenary outfit led by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Herbst said Russian fighters gained ground because of a “huge advantage” sustained through artillery strikes and the wall of soldiers that Wagner has thrown at Ukraine.

But any advances are a “costly” victory for Russia, as thousands of lives have reportedly been lost and the town has been decimated, Herbst added.

“Of course, for the Russians, this is the way they do it,” he said. “They send people to die so they can make minimal gains.”

Moscow claims it has seized control of most of Soledar, while Ukraine says fighting is continuing and has called Russian claims of victory propaganda.

Prigozhin, the financier of the Wagner Group, claimed “complete liberation” of the mining town and said 500 Ukrainian troops were killed.

“The whole city is littered with the corpses of Ukrainian soldiers,” Prigozhin said in a Telegram post.

However, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov on Wednesday said Russian troops had blocked the city from the north and south and that fighting was continuing inside the city, Tass reported.

Prigozhin is seen as jockeying for influence with Putin, however the Russian leaders reshuffle of the generals leading the war effort this week was seen as a rebuke to hawks outside of the military establishment. 

On Wednesday, Putin replaced the commander overseeing the war in Ukraine with Valery Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, effectively giving his top military man ownership over the war. 

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) assessed that the appointment of Gerasimov was likely part of the Russian Defense Ministry reasserting primacy “in an internal power struggle.”

In his nightly address on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia is claiming control of Soledar to rally public support. 

Russia is “trying to pretend that some part of our city of Soledar — a city that was almost completely destroyed by the occupiers — is allegedly some kind of Russian achievement,” Zelensky said.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said at a press briefing on Wednesday that combat is “fluid” in Soledar and that Ukrainians are still putting up a “determined fight.”

“It’s gone back and forth a number of times,” Austin said. “It really is some pretty brutal fighting.”

Even if Russia takes Soledar, it does not mean Bakhmut would immediately fall, nor does it pose an imminent risk to Ukrainian troops in the region. 

Analysts at the ISW said “even taking the most generous Russian claims at face value, the capture of Soledar would not portend an immediate encirclement of Bakhmut.”

Slantchev, the political science professor, doubted that Russian control over Bakhmut would mark a clear victory if forces failed to make further gains in the north.

“A lot of people are criticizing this pressure on Bakhmut and Soledar because even if they take them, if the Ukrainians achieve their goals in the north [Russia] can’t defend them,” Slantchev said.