It is now confirmed that Bakhmut, a salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine that one year ago had a population of 73,000 people, has fallen into Russian control. After 10 months of uninterrupted fighting and ten of thousands casualties on both sides, the battle has been the longest and bloodiest in the war so far.
Ukraine has never divulged its military losses, but they have been so severe that the US urged Kyiv to retreat from Bakhmut to spare ammunition and men for a later and much anticipated spring counter-offensive. However, Zelensky overruled that advice and sent some of Ukraine’s best troops to try to keep Bakhmut. He even carried a flag of the city when he visited the US Congress in December to ask for more military help.
Bakhmut was captured mostly by Russian Wagner’s forces, the private army of Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former close friend of Putin that performs operations in Africa and Asia to serve the Kremlin's interests in an undercover way. Currently, the Wagner group largely consists of inmates recruited from Russian prisons, although this controversial kind of recruitment stopped some months ago.
Prigozhin has been the most outspoken figure in the Ukrainian front by openly criticizing the Russian military leaders and even Putin for not being efficient enough in supplying war materials and for their strategic incompetence. The fall of Bakhmut is a big victory for Prigozhin and his open self-promoted political aspirations in Ukraine and Russia.
The United States estimates that Russia has lost 100,000 servicemen compared to 20,000 Ukrainian since the siege began in July, whereas Prigozhin claimed this week that at least 20,000 men in his militia have died in capturing the city. This battle is the first major Russian victory in more than 10 months, thus a very important boost for the Russian side to continue its advances in the Donbas, which is now openly the ultimate military goal of Russia in this war.
The Wagner group announced that they will retreat from Bakhmut 1st of June and cede the control to the Russian army. After that, the official name of the city displayed will no longer be Bakhmut, which adopted this name in 2016. Instead, Russia will use the town’s Soviet-era name, Artyomovsk.
Strategically, the capture of Bakhmut could open up a path further west, possibly to Kramatorsk, a bigger city that had more than 150,000 inhabitants before the war. However, Ukraine has heavily fortified the areas around it and most analysts agree that this victory will have little effect on the final result of the war.
Since some months ago, the United States has paved the way for its allies to transfer advanced jets to Ukraine's air force, the F-16s, and the G7 leadership just committed in Hiroshima, Japan, to deliver more aid and weapons to Ukraine. Another sign of the escalation in the conflict is the coordination between the Ukrainian army and two neo-Nazi Russian militias that tried to capture this week several Russian cities in the region of Belgorod, close to the border with Ukraine.
These militias, Freedom of Russia Legion and Russian Volunteer Corps, were founded in 2022, are composed mainly of Russian citizens, and has the ultimate goal of "deposing Putin". The tanks and other weapons that were used by the Russian rebels were provided by NATO and had the logistical support of the Ukrainian army. Shortly after, on Tuesday, the Kremlin issued a statement blaming the Ukrainian side of "invading Russia" and later on saying that "70 terrorists have been eliminated and that the situation in western Russia is again under control".
Neither Ukraine, NATO nor Russia is willing to compromise. But other powers like China, Brazil and the Holy See could play an important role in trying to find a way out. However, the realistic perspective is that this can only be resolved in the battlefield, like the numerous conflicts the humankind has experienced ever since.