Why is the Bekhmut region a priority target for the Russians?

The city of Bakhmut, located in the east of Ukraine, has been targeted by the Russians since the summer of this year. Fighting continues as the Russians and Ukrainians wage deadly trench warfare.

Main city for Russians? Fighting is currently taking place in eastern Ukraine, in Bakhmut, which is still under Ukrainian control. Moscow forces claimed on Wednesday that three new villages were captured nearby. So why do the Russians want to capture this particular city?

“Extremely violent” trench warfare

The region, located on a front of about 40 km, is today the main battleground between Ukraine and Russia. The city of Bakhmut has been targeted by Moscow forces since the summer of this year, despite regular Russian capture of smaller towns near the city.

There is trench warfare going on. Images of soldiers fighting with artillery in muddy trenches are reminiscent of the First World War.

“This trench warfare shows that the front is extremely stable, and therefore the fighting is extremely fierce,” says our special envoy for Ukraine, Nicholas Koadou.

For General Jérôme Pellistrandi, BFMTV’s defense adviser, the losses are significant: they are estimated at “one or two hundred dead on both sides per day”. The bloody clash reached such an extent that Wagner, the head of the Russian paramilitary group, called this battle a “slaughterhouse”.

Finally, a claim of “victory” for the Russians

For General Pellistrandi, if the city is not strategic in itself, it has a “symbolic” value. “In a way, it would be the gateway to Kramatorsk,” he says.

“After the failure of the fighting in the southern Donbass, in the Kyiv region, the Russians decided to concentrate their efforts on Bakhmut, which was considered accessible to the Russians and allowed them to ‘say we have won,'” explains General Pellistrandi.

“Tactically, this is the only place they can really move,” he said.

But if it succeeded, it would only be a “Pyrrhic victory,” says our defense counsel. Then he recalls: “Other cities that were conquered again fell.”

That is why fighters from Moscow are the majority in the region. General Jerome Pellistrandi, BFMTV’s defense adviser, explains that in addition to the soldiers called up as part of the partial mobilization, there are “classic Russian forces, especially those on the Kherson side and redeployed troops.”

In addition to members of the Wagner militia, there are also members of militias from self-proclaimed republics on the site.

Residents flee

Today, the city has been disfigured by bombings. The streets are almost empty, our special correspondent Nicolas Coadou recalls “almost a ghost town”.

A destroyed building in Bakhmout, Ukraine, November 29, 2022
A collapsed building in Bakhmut, Ukraine, November 29, 2022 © Yevgen TITOV / AFP

Of the 70,000 inhabitants of Bakhmut and its surroundings before the war, today only 5,000-10,000 people remain. These survivors live “hidden in their basements in extremely unsanitary conditions.”

A resident named Inna says: “We have had no gas since May and no electricity for three months.”

A refugee woman cooks in a basement in Bakhmut, the target of Russian strikes, Ukraine, December 1, 2022
A woman takes shelter in a basement in Bakhmut, Ukraine, the target of Russian strikes, December 1, 2022 © Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP

Therefore, many residents decided to flee. “They bomb every day, 24 hours a day, it’s impossible to breathe,” says Nina, a resident of Bachmouth, who is about to flee to Poland.

For the Russians, advance as far as possible “before winter”.

Is this goal really realistic for the Russians? For General Pellistrandi, who believes that “the balance of power is almost the same” between Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, it is difficult to predict.

The geography of the city, which consists of many HLM-type buildings and few hills, pushes the Moscow forces to “memle-kasma” or even “conquest village according to districts”.

“The goal is to try to hit as many places as possible before the winter or hear a recovery in the spring,” believes our defense consultant. So the battle may still be long.

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