The ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia witnessed a series of violent battles and skirmishes to win a decisive win over the opponent. Most of these encounters brought a high number of casualties, often favouring the defending side. However, sometimes, the protagonists end up locked in a series of military actions over insignificant locations. A case in point is the city of Bakhmut, which has been bleeding both sides dry, turning into a humanitarian disaster. While Russia deploys its regular army and private military companies to achieve its objectives, Ukraine has mobilised millions of citizens to repel the invading forces.
The town of Bakhmut, which had a pre-war population of around 70,000, has witnessed heavy fighting, resulting in significant casualties for both Ukrainian and Russian forces since May 2022. This location has become one of the deadliest battlegrounds in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, the largest conventional war since World War II. The fighting in Bakhmut has resulted in an estimated 70,000 casualties on both sides.
Bakhmut’s symbolic value raises the question of whether any victory there would be considered Pyrrhic. The latter is a term linked to the Greek King Pyrrhus, who, after winning a costly battle against the Romans, reportedly said, “Another such victory, and I am undone.” The term has been used, since then, to describe a victory that comes at such a high cost that it is almost as detrimental as a defeat.
While overrunning Bakhmut would hold symbolic value for Russia, many experts question the rationale for losing thousands of men and military ordnance. The Russian side justifies this strategy by referring to some key regional logistics and transport hubs in the region. Bakhmut would give Russia command over important transportation routes and allow them to move troops and supplies throughout the area more easily. Moreover, the Kremlin wants a victory that could be used in the media to let the Russian public forget the many demoralising setbacks in the past months.
For the Ukrainian side, although fighting to preserve Bakhmut comes at a high cost, it is explained by the need to mount a die-hard resistance all over the Ukrainian territory. Volodymyr Nazarenko, the deputy commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, stated that their forces’ task in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses as possible on the enemy and emphasised that every meter of Ukrainian land comes at a high cost to the enemy.
The Ukrainian determination to defend every inch of the city of Bakhmut instead of retreating and establishing a new defensive line appears to be political rather than military. Time will tell whether the Sisyphean task of defending Bakhmut was justified. The Ukrainian decision-makers hope to buy time and wear down Russian troops in Bakhmut, thwarting (or at least delaying) their plans for a potential counter-offensive.
Meanwhile, international experts are sceptical towards both approaches. The prolonged battle for Bakhmut has taken a toll on the belligerents, preventing them from launching more consequential offensives. While Russia may achieve some short-term gains, such as seizing territory and weakening Ukraine’s military capabilities, the long-term consequences of such an action would be counterproductive. A potential Russian occupation of Bakhmut will prolong the war with Ukraine. Russia would continue to face heavier significant diplomatic and economic repercussions from the international community, including further sanctions and more isolation. The conflict would also likely fuel instability and unrest within Russia and neighbouring countries, potentially leading to a broader regional crisis. Moreover, the expanding sanctions targeting the welfare of the Russian people will further reduce their quality of life. Thus, the number of Russians seeking refuge in neighbouring countries will continue to increase.
Furthermore, the costs of a prolonged conflict would be immense for Russia and Ukraine, with significant loss of life, damage to infrastructure, and economic disruption. Innocent civilians would bear the brunt of the violence, and any tactical win would be hollow and short-lived. Victory in wars is measured not only by winning battles but also by the losses incurred and the consequences that follow.
As human casualties and the loss of equipment continue to occur, neither side can triumph via Pyrrhic victories such as in Bakhmut. Only a commitment to diplomacy, negotiation, and peace can provide a better outcome for all concerned.
This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.