One year ago, the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, home to some 70,000 people, was known locally for its salt mines and sparkling wine. Today, it is a symbol of Russia’s brutal and relentless war.
For months, both armies have been heavily shelling the city, as seen in video recently released by Ukraine’s military.
Ukrainian forces have been pushing back against Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenaries — many of them released from Russia’s prisons and sent to the front lines after only brief training — since the fall, making the battle for Bakhmut the war’s longest.
Over the weekend, Moscow claimed to have taken Bakhmut, but Kyiv denied this, saying its forces are still holding on to a small part of the city and staging counterattacks as part of a plan to encircle the area.
Most civilians have fled. Leafy green streets are now scorched landscapes, as shown in before-and-after satellite images from Maxar Technologies. The aerial imagery of Bakhmut’s approximately 10 square miles reveals how homes, schools, shops and a red-roofed theater have been flattened.
If the city has fallen to Russia — as President Vladimir Putin claims — it would be the only significant territorial gain for Moscow since last summer. For Ukrainians, Bakhmut has come to represent resistance. President Volodymyr Zelensky in December called the city “the fortress of our morale.”
The value of the city at this point is more about politics and morale than about strategy. Leaked U.S. intelligence documents showed that Washington warned Ukraine it would not be able to hold Bakhmut and urged Kyiv to abandon the fight.
In a visit over the weekend to Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945, Zelensky said the pictures of ruin there “totally reminded me of Bakhmut and other similar settlements and towns.”
“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,” he said, referring to how little is left of the centuries-old city.
Ukrainian officials and military personnel in the field have said that Ukrainian forces now hold only a small patch of the city, near a destroyed statue of a Soviet MiG-17 fighter jet. However, Ukraine has made gains on the flanks to the south and north, potentially setting the stage for a counterattack.
Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, described this approach as a “semi-encirclement,” which would force Russian troops on the defensive. On Monday, Maliar wrote on Telegram that the defense of Bakhmut had served a military purpose.
“Huge losses have been inflicted on the enemy; we have gained time for certain actions that which will be discussed later,” she wrote.
Some analysts believe Russia’s lines could be stretched in Bakhmut if Moscow defends the city without the aid of troops from Wagner, who are reported to have led the fight in the city’s west. On Monday, a Telegram account affiliated with Wagner founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin said the mercenary soldiers would start leaving the city on Thursday.
“It’s a Pyrrhic victory,” said James Rands, an analyst at Janes, a military intelligence firm based in London. “We don’t know how many losses Russia has taken but it’s a lot. It’s a lot of time and energy and all they’ve got is a bit of smashed-up rubble.”
The tragic devastation of Bakhmut — the symbolic weight aside — could serve at least some strategic function for Ukraine, some analysts argue. Even if the city itself was not considered vital to Russia’s war aims before the Wagner Group made it a focus, the protracted fight could draw Russian resources away from other objectives. “There will be somewhere along the front lines where Russia will try to push,” Rand said. “If you hold them back and keep the fight there, that’s one town being absolutely devastated — but you’ve kept that fire in one place.”
Taylor reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Claire Parker and Jennifer Hassan contributed to this report.