Mr. Lange, Putin’s Wagner mercenaries claim to have conquered Bachmut, Selenskyi’s troops deny that. Let’s assume the Russians actually held the longest-fought city since the beginning of the war: What use is this victory to them?
Nico Long: From a strategic point of view, the complete conquest of a completely destroyed city would certainly not change much for Putin’s troops, especially since the argument that Russian soldiers were protecting a population of Russian origin in the Donbass would no longer apply. In any case, the former population of Bachmut no longer has a home.
The special meaning for Putin’s military is above all in the propaganda value of having proven that they can still conquer anything in Ukraine. Nothing worth mentioning has happened lately.
A few days ago, Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian land forces, claimed that the Wagner mercenaries “crept after Bakhmut like rats into a mousetrap”. Could conquering Bakhmut turn into a Pyrrhic victory for Putin?
Nico Long: That would be entirely conceivable. Putin’s troops have paid a very high price with heavy casualties in the eight-month battle for this city. And at least there have recently been minor gains in land around the city, which were reported by the Ukrainian side. But Ukraine also had to pay a high price for staying in Bakhmut for so long. You should probably not take every rhetoric 100 percent seriously.
Aside from recapturing Ukrainian territory, what would be the military gains for Ukraine itself from wresting Bakhmut Putin’s troops away again?
Nico Long: As long as Russian soldiers or mercenaries hold Bakhmut, there is a risk that they could put pressure on other Ukrainian cities such as Kostyantynivka in the southwest and Seversk in the north of Bakhmut. However, the Ukrainian armed forces have well-developed defensive positions throughout the Donbass where they can continue to defend themselves. In my view, Ukraine’s task now is to stem a further advance by the Russians from Bakhmut to the north or west, and not to recapture the destroyed urban area.
Expert warns: retaking Bachmut at any cost would be risky
Do you think that Ukraine will try to bring Bakhmut back at any cost?
Nico Long: A recapture at any cost would be risky. Above all, because Zelenskyj’s troops, who also suffered high losses in the battle for Bakhmut, must be careful not to wear out their own military capacities for the planned counter-offensive where it is not militarily expedient. For Ukraine, a major front breakthrough should be the most important goal of the counteroffensive. And that cannot be achieved by recapturing Bachmut.