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What the battle for Bakhmut tells us about the war in Ukraine


In every war, a place often comes to symbolize the brutality of the conflict - Stalingrad in the Second World War, Srebrenica in the former Yugoslavia. Today, in Ukraine, it may be Bakhmut. For almost a year, Russian forces have been fighting to capture the small city in the east of the country. Russian losses are huge. It's estimated tens of thousands of people killed or injured, and yet they keep fighting. We're joined now by Phillips O'Brien, a professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Professor O'Brien, thanks so much for being with us.

PHILLIPS O'BRIEN: Glad to be here.

SIMON: The most recent satellite images of Bakhmut are astonishing, the level of devastation. Why does Russia consider it such an important target?

O'BRIEN: Well, I think we can all say it's all politics at this point, the - two kinds of politics. I mean, Bakhmut has ceased to exist. They have destroyed a city which, by all reports, was a very pleasant city and a location for the making of Ukrainian sparkling wine and elements like that. But the Russians have leveled it because they wanted to take the physical area of Bakhmut. It has no strategic importance. There's no war industry there.

And it seems to have been a completely political choice on two levels. One level is they just needed a victory, that they had spent months going forward, months sending their army in this sort of winter, early spring offensive, and they hadn't taken anything of any note. But there was also, I think, politically a competitive thing within the Russian system. So it was both the overall Russian need for a victory and yet also a competitive situation within the Russian fighting forces to claim a victory. But that seems to have been it.

SIMON: What do you make of the social media posts of the head of the Wagner Group saying that Moscow was not giving him the weapons that he needed to win the city?

O'BRIEN: By the way, the Russians have almost taken all of Bakhmut by now. It could be that 90% of the city or so is actually under Russian control. But even from the Russian point of view now, this looks, I think, like a pretty terrible thing that they've done with massive casualties and not achieving anything. And what Prigozhin seems to be doing is to try and say, this was not my fault.

SIMON: He is the head of the Wagner Group.

O'BRIEN: He's the head of the Wagner Group, and so he's sort of in command of a special militia that doesn't come directly under army command but is under the Russian government. And he's carved out a particular image of himself, particularly over the fighting of Bakhmut. Wagner was going to have a great success in Bakhmut. Now the cost of taking Bakhmut has been so high that he seems to be going on these rants, and he videos himself, and he goes on these rants attacking the army to try and say what had happened wasn't our fault, that what happened in Bakhmut was the fault of the army for not supporting us. So even if you look at, by the way, Russian TV reporting, they used to be making, you know, great things about Bakhmut was about to fall, Bakhmut was about to fall. But even now within Russian TV and Russian propaganda, they're beginning to back off from that because it's no longer seen as sort of this thing that they could package as a great triumph.

SIMON: It's a little hard not to reflect on the fact that so many people have died for a city that has no particular - it has great human value, but no particular strategic importance.

O'BRIEN: Absolutely. I mean, it's the insanity of war, and it's the insanity of Russian strategy, which still seems to have started this war with no idea of how to end it. And yet instead of having the courage to say we unleashed a catastrophe; let's try and get out of it, they seem to be willing to slaughter massive amounts of their own soldiers and kill many Ukrainians because they cannot admit that this war is a catastrophe.

SIMON: And what do you make of the Ukrainian defense of the city, or attempted defense?

O'BRIEN: It was a terrible choice that had to be made. Ukraine has one thing in its mind now, and that's preparing for the Ukrainian counteroffensive or offensive this spring or summer. They have been building up a large strike force with a lot of the new weaponry they were given at the end of the year and in January and February. They have been assembling a strike force, which is now going at some point to go into the offensive. What they needed to do was to, one, weaken the Russians as much as possible before they do that counteroffensive, and secondly, buy time to get that force ready.

They calculated - I believe it was the right choice - that in fighting for Bakhmut, they could do both. They calculated correctly the Russians were going to sort of expend whatever it took to take Bakhmut. Bakhmut had become politically so important that if you really wanted to weaken the Russians, you had to make them fight for every block. So that's why it's such a horrible battle, because they really did fight building to building.

SIMON: Recognizing that Ukrainians may not share their strategic plans with you, what do you deduce about where a new counteroffensive might occur?

O'BRIEN: I wonder if it's not a case of where on the map, as in the Ukrainians are going to aim for a particular town. Are they going to aim for Melitopol, as some have said, or Mariupol or something like that? It might be a case of they're going to aim for first where do they think the Russians are weakest. They would want to create a situation where they can punch a hole in the Russian lines, maybe cause a form of Russian collapse. So I wouldn't say that it's necessarily a place right now they know they want to take. It might be that this starts at a place where they think the Russians are weakest and they have the best chance to sort of break out and have a big hole.

SIMON: Phillips O'Brien, professor of strategic studies at St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Thanks so much.

O'BRIEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
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