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Why is Russia wasting so many troops to capture Bakhmut?

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The Russian military is putting all of its efforts into capturing the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, which has turned into a bloody quagmire for both Ukraine and Russia.

After a year of unsuccessful fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin needs a big victory to show the Russian people that the “special military operation” is going well. But the clock is ticking on the assault as well as the purported new Russian offensive as well.

Bakhmut is a symbol of Ukrainian resistance. After months of brutal shelling by Russian troops, it has virtually become a ghost town. Only a few thousand people remain of a pre-war population of 70,000.

Bakhmut resembles a World War I battlefield more than a 21st-century city, with trenches crisscrossing the landscape and the ground pockmarked by shell holes. 

Russian forces finally begin to close the pincers around the city, threatening to surround it. At the time of this writing, only a three-mile-wide gap to the west remains before Russia fully encircles Bakhmut.

Ukraine recently reinforced the city but this could be only a delaying action on the part of Ukrainian defense forces as they are already building defensive positions on hills around Chasiv Yar, about nine miles west of Bakhmut. Ukraine has hinted, for the first time, that it may actually withdraw from Bakhmut.

Related: Is the era of tanks over or does Russia just suck at using them?

Destroyed buildings in Bakhmut. (Via Mariia Zolkina Twitter)

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the owner of the Russian mercenary company Wagner Group, which recruited many convicts in past months, said that “Tens of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers are offering fierce resistance, and the fighting is getting increasingly bloody by day.”

Prigozhin, a former convict himself, is no military man or a strategic thinker. He has ordered the Wagner Group time and again to make full-frontal assaults on Ukrainian positions in Bakhmut and has promised Putin that he can do what the Russian military cannot and capture Bakhmut. Wasting convict manpower matters little to him or Putin.

Bakhmut allows control of the road network that leads to the larger cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. However, Russia doesn’t need to capture Bakhmut to reach those cities. As a result, the beleaguered city holds little strategic value and is mostly a symbolic cause for Russia. Further, because of the upcoming weather, the chances of Russia reaching Kramatorsk and Sloviansk in the coming weeks are very low.

Related: One year after the Russian invasion, Ukraine continues to defy the odds

Despite below-freezing temperatures at night, the days turn the ground to mud, which generally favors the defenders. Last winter, a warmer-than-normal February and March hampered Russian troops from deploying offroad and resulted in horrific casualties and losses of equipment. 

If Russia doesn’t achieve a big breakthrough in the Donbas, then its vaunted winter offensive will peter out without having achieved anything. Russia, which seems incapable of conducting combined arms operations, is now throwing poorly trained conscripts into the battle.

Whereas, with the influx of advanced Western weapons, including Western tanks, artillery, missiles, and ammunition, Ukraine could be gearing up for its own spring offensive. The next few weeks should indicate how the warmer weather months will unfold.

Feature Image: Russian troops purportedly in Ukraine. (Twitter)

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Steve Balestrieri