What the Battle of Bakhmut can teach about wars

Just weeks before Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s December visit to the city of Bakhmut, a soldier with the military call sign “Bear” gazed out of a dilapidated sixth-floor window, overlooking the eastern reaches of the city. I stayed silent next to him. Below the battle raged with silent ferocity.

Rockets lit up the sky. A tank burned in the distance. To the south, Russian incendiary munitions floated down, the thin arc of white flame igniting small fires on the ground, but little more. There was nothing left to burn, the area had already been bombed to death.

“Bajmut,” I wrote in my diary, “is in bad shape.”

That was a long night among hundreds of days in which Bakhmut became the focal point of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, and in an enclave highly desired by Russia that Ukrainian troops defended tenaciously. Today, the city of Bakhmut appears to have fallen to the Russians after 10 months, leaving thousands of soldiers wounded or dead and a lingering question: how did a nondescript city the world had never heard of become the site of where both sides decided to fight to the end, no matter the cost?

“Looks like all the vultures are here,” a soldier told me — via message — when a mob of journalists turned up in March, when the city seemed on the verge of falling. “Where were you before this got so terrible?” he wrote.

The trajectory of a war is unknown. Combatants, political winds, and military strategies equally influence the battles fought and the violence that follows. Bakhmut, a former Cossack outpost that at the start of the war was a salt mining town, was simply the place where two armies collided. Pride, defiance, and sheer stubbornness quickly endowed the city with inordinate importance.

Fallujah in Iraq was also unknown to much of the world until the United States tried to put down a growing insurgency in 2004. There were two battles for the city, one that took three weeks and another that lasted six. They were intense fighting but much smaller in scale than the destruction and loss of Bakhmut.

Gettysburg was an undulating place filled with typical southern Pennsylvania hills and fields, but it turned out to be the site where three days of futile fighting ended Robert E. Lee’s chances of turning the Civil War in his favor. Iwo Jima was no more than an island enclave in the Pacific, but the United States needed it for its long-range bombers, and the fight to control it became one of the toughest battles of World War II.

But whether it’s Bakhmut, Iwo Jima or Fallujah, the end of the battle, no matter what is at stake or who wins, is always the same: unfathomable losses and the need to face what comes next. How do you remember the dead and prepare for what you fear will be the strategic indifference of your leaders, who are plotting their next campaigns with battles that could spell your own demise?

“The enemy,” says Yossarian, Joseph Heller’s character in trap 22, his World War II novel, “It’s anyone who wants to kill you, whichever side they’re on.”

By Monday morning, Ukrainian officials were talking of controlling the “outskirts” of Bakhmut and preparing flanking operations, a subtle indication that the battle inside the city had come to an end. Amid the rubble, the pre-war population of about 70,000 has been reduced to a few thousand or less.

There was a time when it seemed unlikely that the Russians could capture Bakhmut. The Ukrainian army had expelled them from Kharkov last September. In November, they liberated the port city of Kherson. Ukraine was winning. In Bakhmut, some people hoped that the kyiv troops would continue to advance and turn the tide once and for all.

Despite his defeats elsewhere; Moscow troops along with Wagner’s mercenary forces, the Kremlin-backed group leading the assault on Bakhmut, never stopped attacking the city.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had made it clear that his forces would capture Bakhmut and then target the entirety of the mineral-rich Donbas region in which it lies. There was no winter calm: the ground hardened and the metal of howitzers and Kalashnikovs became painful to the touch of fingers numb from the cold. Spring has just brought more destruction in the form of fierce and bloody street fighting.

For months, military analysts, Western officials and the media argued about the “strategic importance” of Bakhmut, as if some military jargon could make it easier to swallow the loss of an entire city to an invading army. The Russians could make better use of their resources, analysts said. Ukraine should withdraw to a better area and continue its offensive elsewhere, they added.

I remember pundits and the press in 2010, when I was involved in a different battle as a Marine in southern Afghanistan: the battle for Marja. It was nowhere near as violent as what I witnessed on my many trips to Bakhmut as a journalist for The New York Times, but like the Ukrainian soldiers fighting for his city, he knew the world was watching.

How little that meant in 2010, when no amount of public scrutiny would determine whether my friends lived or died. And how little it meant to the soldiers fighting in Bakhmut, where every minute they weren’t under shelling or attack was a breather, and where the daily goal was to survive and stay alive.

Zelensky made Bakhmut the focal point of the war when he visited him in December, appearing with his exhausted soldiers in what appeared to be an empty factory near the front lines. The city, formerly called Artemivsk, was in the spotlight.

Bakhmut, with its once neatly manicured walking paths and picturesque well-known vineyard, suddenly became a major strategic area, whether generals and analysts agreed or not.

Zelensky’s visit was all the Ukrainian media and people needed. “Bajmut resist” became a rallying cry. The war had another pitched battle, one that felt eerily similar to the siege of Mariupol and the fighting at Lisichansk and Severodonetsk months before: outnumbered defenders, fighting a much larger army.

We are “in the middle of the ring of fire,” said a soldier fighting in Bakhmut towards the end of the battle, before asking if The New York Times would get the proper information out to the public if he was left there.

On the other side was Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner’s manager. The once secretive mogul began appearing in videos on the Bakhmut front. In the footage, Prigozhin is seen cheering on his fighters and urging Zelensky on as he adjusts his bulletproof vest. In a video posted in March, Prigozhin asked the Ukrainian president to keep sending “battle-ready units” so his Wagner troops could kill them.

He also sparred with the Russian military leadership, lambasting and mocking them, becoming an exuberant character in the Bakhmut narrative.

It was a camera-ready showdown enhanced by the lurid images that also came from the war front.

Videos posted from the battlefield showed a landscape riddled with shell scars and dotted with mangled trees. Soldiers fought from knee-deep muddy trenches. Trench foot was a common winter condition.

Before long, Bakhmut began to be compared to Verdun in 1916 (a 10-month battle that had hundreds of thousands of French and German casualties). But bloody trench warfare in eastern Ukraine was nothing new because it had been a staple of the conflict since Russian-backed separatists began fighting the government in 2014.

Historical comparisons, as apt as they may have been, did nothing to mitigate the horrors on the ground. For months, the dead and wounded from Ukraine poured in a steady stream into Bakhmut’s only hospital. Bloodstained stretchers received new patients. The surrounding fields were littered with Russian dead, camouflaged corpses pointing the direction of their attack.

Zelensky’s visit had made it clear: his forces would fight to the end. Bakhmut would join the list of cities where many soldiers died in exchange for just a few kilometers of devastated land.

The soldiers who survive will have the rest of their lives to reflect on whether it was worth it. And those who died will be remembered as the fallen heroes of the battle for Bakhmut, the troops who perished in a city many people had never heard of a year ago.

As I stood by the broken window that freezing December night, I remember thinking that despite the crescendo From the artillery and the chatter of gunfire, the battle for Bakhmut felt far away. Two days later, a shell crashed into the empty apartment where we had been standing.

Today, the Russians patrol the city. The war continues. It will inching towards new places on the map, not yet destroyed by months of artillery battles, where new slogans could emerge and where the “strategic meaning” remains in doubt, while the world awaits another bloody denouement.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is the Kabul bureau chief and was previously a Marine. @tmgneff

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