Why Russia and Ukraine are fighting over Bakhmut

Smoke and destruction in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Feb. 27. (AFP/Getty Images)
8 min

If there’s one city that has come to symbolize the grinding war of attrition in Ukraine, it’s Bakhmut.

Russia has pummeled the city for about eight months, reducing it to a charred ghost town. Moscow has sent wave after wave of soldiers and Wagner Group mercenaries toward Ukrainian positions, sustaining heavy casualties in the process. At several points, as Russian forces close in, the city has appeared on the verge of falling. But Ukrainian fighters have stood their ground.

Before the war, Bakhmut was mostly known as a center of the salt industry. But the relentless, intensifying fight for control of the city — which analysts say holds little strategic importance — has made it a rallying cry and political battleground for both sides.

The situation there is the “most difficult” in the country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said last week — but he vowed Monday night not to withdraw from Bakhmut, adding that senior military commanders supported reinforcing the city.

Moscow could soon take control of the city, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday. But such a scenario “does not necessarily reflect any turning point of the war, and it just highlights that we should not underestimate Russia,” he told reporters ahead of a meeting with European Union defense ministers.

Here’s what to know about the battle for the city.

Russia advances in Bakhmut by sending waves of mercenaries to certain death

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.