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Has Bakhmut been captured? Meduza’s updated battle map and a discussion of the bloodiest battle of the Russia-Ukraine war
Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Meduza has adopted a consistent antiwar position, holding Russia responsible for its military aggression and atrocities. As part of this commitment, we regularly update an interactive map that documents combat operations in Ukraine and the damage inflicted by Russia’s invasion forces. Our map is based exclusively on previously published open-source photos and videos, most of them posted by eyewitnesses on social media. We collect reports already available publicly and determine their geolocation markers, adding only the photos and videos that clear this process.
Meduza doesn’t try to track the conflict in real time; the data reflected on the map are typically at least 48 hours old.
Key updates as of 9 p.m. GMT (5 p.m. EDT) on May 20, 2023
On May 20, Wagner Group founder Evgeny Prigozhin stood outside of the Bakhmut train station, long occupied by his troops, and announced that Wagner fighters had completely captured the city. Within a several hours he offered proof of his claims in the form of video footage of Russian flags being hoisted on buildings around the city.
The videos were accompanied by a map showing flags in all neighborhoods of Bakhmut’s western sector, except for one — the southwest exit to the city, which was previously famous for its statue of a MiG-17 airplane, and which Wagner Group still did not control on the evening of May 19. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) continued to hold their positions in industrial buildings in the “airplane neighborhood” on May 20.
Russia’s Defense Ministry, which has been in an ongoing conflict with Prigozhin, announced overnight on May 21 Moscow time that the “liberation of Artemovsk [the Soviet name for Bakhmut] was complete.
So has Wagner Group captured Bakhmut?
Very likely, yes. The “disputed” area consists only of a dozen high-rise buildings, schools, a kindergarten, and some garages at the end of Tchaikovsky Street. Across the street are agricultural facilities. The buildings and the spaces between them were well-fortified by the AFU, who have held out defending the neighborhood since late February. Despite constant assaults and artillery attacks, Wagner Group was unable to break through AFU defenses in those dense developments.
However in recent days, the situation for Bakhmut’s defenders has deteriorated drastically. By May 18, after the rest of the city had fallen, they were left face to face with the entirety of Wagner Group forces and its artillery. Wagner fighters had previously approached only from the east, but now they could now get to the area from the north, along Tchaikovsky Street. In addition, defenders of the “airplane neighborhood” were threatened with encirclement if Wagner Group captured the agricultural facilities across the street.
If AFU units have not yet withdrawn from the last area they held on May 20, they will likely do so in the coming hours or days.
Apart from its symbolic significance as the last citadel of the “Bakhmut fortress,” this area has tactical value: the high-rise buildings stand on a tall rise, which the city’s residents call Bugor. The hill rises over the village of Ivanivske (formerly known as Krasne), through which runs the Bakhmut–Kostiantynivka highway. The capture of that hill and the high-rise buildings on it will make approaching the city extremely difficult — the area in front of Bugor is visible, and an open shot, for several kilometers.
You can see how this area looked before the war here. (Some of the apartment buildings no longer exist.) In the last of the video clips posted by Prigozhin, one shot shows a Russian flag being raised on a building that resembles one near the “airplane monument,” but the angle of the shot and the heavy damage to the building make it impossible to determine with certainty whether it is in fact a building in that area.
How important is the potential fall of Bakhmut?
Since the early days of the battle for Bakhmut the city has held chiefly symbolic significance. The city stands in a hollow near a hilly ridge that forms a natural barrier — it’s the hills, and not the urban landscape, that protect the northern and central Donbas from a potential offensive by Russia’s armed forces. Before the war, Bakhmut was an important transit hub, but after the AFU’s defeat in the Luhansk region last summer, the roads running through Bakhmut mostly lost their defensive importance.
The situation gives the impression that it’s worth it for Ukraine to defend Bakhmut only if it doesn’t eat up excessive resources. Otherwise, it would be more logical to retreat to positions in the hills 10 kilometers (around 6 miles) away. However, following painful withdrawals from Lysychansk and Severodonetsk in summer 2022, the Ukrainian authorities have evidently decided that they should not lose a single other city.
- Russian troops (mainly from the former “people’s militia” of the self-proclaimed Luhansk “people’s republic”) first approached Bakhmut from the east in August 2022. After the AFU lost the battle for Lysychansk, they were unable to immediately stop advancing Russian forces. But Lysychansk also left the Russian army without the resources for a new battle. After meeting with command, Vladimir Putin official sent participants in the battle for Lysychansk “on vacation.”
- After that, Russian forces made essentially no attempts to storm Bakhmut and Soledar until October. In early October, though, everything changed when Wagner ranks approached Bakhmut from the south. At that point the situation still didn’t appear dangerous for the AFU — Wagner Group was bogged down in the eastern and southeastern outskirts of the city for a long time. For that reason, Ukrainian command was in no hurry to transfer large numbers of reserves to the area. But in December, Wagner Group, whose ranks were filling with pardoned former prisoners, managed several successive breakthroughs.
- In December, Wagner Group captured an AFU fortified area near Klishchiivka, south of Bakhmut, and transferred some detachments to Soledar. By January 11, Soledar had been largely captured, and retreating Ukrainian troops were unable to establish a new line of defense in the hills west of the city. As a result, Wagner Group was also able to get around Bakhmut to the north. By the end of the month there was a real threat that the city could be encircled.
- Ukrainian command then had to decide whether to withdraw the garrison from the city. They made the opposite decision, transferring large numbers of reserves to the city and its western outskirts. Even then, the decision raised some questions among Western military experts.
- The AFU managed to repel Wagner Group attempts to encircle Bakhmut. But they were unable to fully restore normal supply lines. A few roads leading west out of the city came under fire by artillery, anti-tank missiles, and sometimes small arms. Every day, more and more AFU tanks, armored vehicles, and pickups littered those roads. In those conditions, it was impossible to seriously increase and strengthen the troops directly engaged in the city’s defense. AFU losses in and around Bakhmut increased so much that, according to leaked Pentagon documents, the U.S. advised the AFU to leave the city in early March.
- Wagner Group, by contrast, could allocate resources when and where it saw fit. However, the group’s resources continued to dwindle, because Wagner tactics involve the use of assault groups, which take heavy losses, and large expenditures of ammunition for artillery. Prigozhin said that Russia’s Defense Ministry curtailed ammunition shipments to Wagner Group (though it’s likely that the same economizing applied to other Russian forces as well). In addition, at the end of winter many of the former prisoners who became Wagner fighters completed their six-month contracts, and, according to Prigozhin, he’s now forbidden to recruit more prisoners.
- By April, it became clear that capturing Bakhmut had the highest symbolic significance for Prigozhin himself. A few months earlier, he had insisted that what he wanted was not to take the city but to deplete as many AFU resources as possible and to “grind up” Ukrainian reserves. In late April, he said that he had promised (though he didn’t specify to whom) that he would capture Bakhmut by May 9. Due to an ammunition shortage, he wasn’t able to fulfill that promise.
- Prigozhin’s complains about ammunition deficits notwithstanding, Wagner Group artillery literally wiped several blocks of apartment buildings off the face of the earth, forcing AFU detachments to leave them for garages and fields on the outskirts of the city.
- Who more thoroughly “ground up” and “exhausted” whom is an open question. Right now, it seems that the AFU suffered very serious losses defending Bakhmut, while a significant portion of Wagner personnel were recruited from prisoners who would have left the battlefield at the end of their contracts in any case. Until recent weeks, the Russian army served in auxiliary roles around Bakhmut and didn’t suffer (again, until recently) tangible losses.
- On the other hand, Wagner Group has at the very least lost its ability to attack for some time. On May 20, Prigozhin reported that his company would be sent on vacation at the end of the month.
Can the AFU recapture Bakhmut?
- The AFU started attacking along the entire front line to Bakhmut’s northwest and southeast in early May when Wagner forces abandoned the area. The Russian forces that replaced them (mostly volunteers with the 3rd Army Corps, which was created in June 2022 to fight in Ukraine, as well as draftees, who were sent to fight with forces from the self-proclaimed Donetsk “people’s republic”) quickly retreated. Judging by the direction of Ukrainian strikes, their principle goal is to expand the corridor between the main Ukrainian positions in the city of Chasiv Yar and the Bakhmut garrison. Ukrainian military sources insist that the ultimate goal is to surround and liberate Bakhmut. AFU have in fact unblocked the roads between Khromove and Ivanivske, though Wagner artillery fire continues as before, making travel on both main roads and country routes difficult. However, the majority of the Bakhmut garrison wasn’t around for this development, since Wagner Group forced them from the city.
- The AFU offensive did, however, remove the threat that Russian troops would break through at Chasiv Yar. That city is located in the hills, about 100 meters (328 feet) higher than the center of Bakhmut. In late winter and early spring, Wagner Group took positions in those hills near Khromove and Stupochek. Theoretically, this could have given them the chance to break through at Chasiv Yar from both the south and the east. Now, the AFU have reclaimed these positions. Without them, it’s doubtful that Russian forces will be able to continue the offensive.
- Moreover, Russian forces may now have big problems with defense. If Wagner forces leave Bakhmut and the surrounding region, they’ll leave a hole dozens of kilometers long at the front, which will require new reserves to close. Furthermore, this will require experienced troops — units made up of draftees and “volunteers” have proven unable to withstand AFU attacks near Bakhmut in recent weeks. It is possible that Wagner troops will maintain a presence in the area, which would strengthen the Russian side significantly. Prigozhin said he would withdraw his company from Bakhmut in early May, but then he nonetheless decided to stay and complete the assault. If his ongoing dispute with Russia’s Defense Ministry is resolved, he may decide to stay now, too.
- The prospects for a Ukrainian offensive will become clear in the coming days, when they attack well-fortified Russian positions in Klishchiivka, southwest of Bakhmut. Judging by the fact that the pace of the Ukrainian offensive has slowed after initial successes, it’s not likely powerful enough to break through Russian defenses.
- In order to give the operation to encircle Bakhmut a chance at success, Ukrainian command will likely have to transfer reserves from the newly formed brigades intended for a large summer offensive. Doing so will weaken the AFU’s offensive potential in other directions, which may be more important from a strategic point of view.
- At the same time, it seems like even a decisive victory on this part of the front (like liberating Bakhmut and the surrounding settlements) would have more symbolic than strategic significance. It’s also true, though, that Russian forces’ capture of the city has exactly the same purely symbolic significance. Symbols are important, though — they impact the mood of the troops and of society.
Will the big AFU offensive happen?
The Ukrainian counteroffensive is still affecting the situation at the front by the very fact of its inevitability:
- Russian troops have stopped attacks on practically the entire line of contact;
- Back-and-forth heavy artillery and kamikaze drone attacks have intensified;
- Video footage has recently appeared showing equipment, recently supplied to Ukraine from the West, being moved in unidentified locations;
- Ukraine’s Armed Forces are testing new long-range weapons, likely Anglo-French Storm Shadow cruise missiles, on targets that were previously unreachable.
However, Ukraine’s Armed Forces (AFU) have not yet carried out real offensive actions anywhere except in the vicinity of Bakhmut. And in that area, not one of the brigades that, according to American documents, Kyiv and the West are jointly preparing for decisive spring and summer 2023 combat has been spotted in the area yet. That likely indicates that Ukraine is planning to use those brigades in one or more other directions.
The data reflected on the map are typically at least 48 hours old. Meduza is careful in working with data, but mistakes are still possible, and perhaps even inevitable. If you spot one, please let us know by sending an email to [email protected]. Thank you!
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