Bakhmut: City in Ruins but Natural Resources Lure Russia, Wagner Chief to Fund Costly Battle

A man walks past an apartment block destroyed by a missile strike, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, from the frontline Donbas city of Bakhmut, Ukraine (Image: Reuters)

The heavy-lifting in the battle for Bakhmut was done by Putin’s chef aka Yevgeny Prigozhin as he eyes the city’s salt and gypsum mines

As the war enters day 320, the name of Bakhmut, a Ukrainian city – now under Russian control – has made the rounds because Ukrainian forces are fighting to ward off Russian forces from around the city.

The city is important for Russian President Vladimir Putin and also for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. A bit more for Zelensky because keeping the city under Ukrainian control would mean a major advantage as the war continues.

In December, Zelensky made an unannounced visit to Bakhmut, met and spoke with military personnel and handed out awards to Ukrainian servicemen. Over the weekend, Zelensky said that Ukrainian forces are holding on to the city in the face of almost never-ending Russian attacks.

“Bakhmut is holding on despite everything. And even though most of the town has been destroyed by Russian strikes, our soldiers are repelling constant Russian attempts to advance,” Zelensky was quoted as saying by news agency Reuters.

On Sunday, Russia claimed that it killed 600 Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut, making it appear like retaliation for the scores of Russian conscripts killed in Makiivka. Ukrainian forces claimed to have killed close to 400 conscripts to the Russian army using HIMARS missiles on New Year’s Day. Russia denied the claims but later said that at least 89 soldiers died in the attack.

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The admission from Russia signals that the Makiivka strikes led to major losses. Following the strikes, Russia made its mind to strike back and despite announcing a temporary ceasefire to observe Orthodox Christmas celebrations, launched strikes on Bakhmut and Kramatorsk.

The AFP report says there were four explosions but it cited Ukrainian authorities who claimed that they did not lose their personnel to the attacks. Pavlo Kyrylenko, the head of the Donetsk regional administration, said Russians launched seven rocket attacks on Kramatorsk and said that “an educational institution, an industrial facility and a garage cooperative” had been damaged.

Russian military bloggers claimed the Kramatorsk strikes as retaliation for the Makiivka strikes and also claimed that Russian forces control the town of Soledar – mere 20 minutes away from Bakhmut.

The question arises regarding the importance of Bakhmut. If Russians wrest control of Bakhmut, it means they have direct access to the natural resources.

Private military company Wagner Group has deployed its mercenaries in the region who are fighting alongside Russian forces and its head Yevgeny Prigozhin, aka Putin’s chef, has direct interest because he seeks to mine the salt and gypsum mines in the region for his own monetary gain.

According to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), an unnamed White House official said that Prigozhin wants control of the region so that he can profit from its vast natural resources.

He said that Prigozhin has told the Kremlin that these mines can act as a “network of underground cities”, claimed that these mines can house personnel and military equipment up to a depth of 80 to 100 metres and are stocked with weapons dating as old as the first World War.

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The ISW said in its assessment report that these could be Prigozhin’s attempts to provide an explanation for the slow pace of his mercenary group’s advances around the city to Kremlin higher-ups.

It could also indicate that given the availability of natural resources, Prigozhin is trying to control the area even though the endeavour is costly and time consuming.

Russian military bloggers, according to the ISW, said the battle for Bakhmut could lead to losses for the Russian army as they are being forced ‘to commit their best forces to an attritional battle.’

Bakhmut has proven costly for Prigozhin as he was filmed last year surveying the basement of a house which was filled with the bodies of his fighters, many of them convicts, who had been killed during the bitter fighting for the city, the Guardian said.

“Their contract has finished, they will go home next week. These are getting ready to be sent. We all work during New Year’s Eve. Here lie Wagner fighters who died at the front. They are now being put in zinc coffins and they will return home,” Wagner was heard saying in the video seen by the Guardian.

Prigozhin said that in Bakhmut houses were being used as fortresses and makeshift morgues.

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