Bakhmut is hell on earth

Both sides seem determined to send ever greater numbers into the human meat-grinder. The battle owes more to symbolism than strategic calculation, writes Eddie Ford

Though the fog of war obscures everything, it does appear that Ukrainian forces are still committed to defending Bakhmut, which has been under siege for seven long months. Over the last few days there have been rumours of an imminent “fighting withdrawal” by Ukrainian forces. Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has warned that Bakhmut could fall in days and Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner founder, has been boasting that his mercenaries have already seized the eastern part of the city. However, president Volodymyr Zelensky has instructed his army to find “appropriate forces” to bolster the defence of the embattled city - claiming that his generals fully support the decision to sacrifice more and more men. There are reports of between 25,000 and 30,000 Russian casualties.

Volodymyr Nazarenko, a senior Ukrainian commander, has described the battle with its World War I type artillery bombardments, trenches, human wave attacks and endless mud as “hell” - but said Ukraine had “stabilised” the frontline and that Russian forces were still confined to the outskirts of the city. Fewer than 4,000 civilians, including 38 children, remain in Bakhmut, which had a pre-invasion population of about 71,000. As for Zelensky, he told CNN that it would be an “open road” for Russian troops to capture other cities in Ukraine, should they take Bakhmut - a debatable proposition. According to the US-based Institute for the Study of War - an organisation which aims to provide “government-independent and open-source analysis” - Ukraine’s defence of Bakhmut is forcing Russia to engage in a costly battle for a city that “isn’t intrinsically important operationally or strategically”.

In fact, the outcome remains impossible to call. Operating as a freelancer, both militarily and politically, Prigozhin said Russia’s Bakhmut frontlines could crumble if his Wagner forces did not receive the ammunition promised by Moscow in February. Prigozhin said on his Telegram channel: “For now, we are trying to figure out the reason: is it just ordinary bureaucracy or a betrayal?” Most likely the lack of ammunition is due to bureaucratic incompetence, but bureaucratic rivalry cannot be ruled out either.

Last month, Prigozhin accused Sergei Shoigu, Russia’s defence minister, and others of “treason” for withholding supplies to his forces, and in a video he claimed to be concerned that the government wanted to set Wagner up as possible “scapegoats” if Russia lost the war.


Recently, we had a Weekly Worker reader complain about an article (‘Notes on the war’, February 23). The reader is upset because it says that between 40,000 and 60,000 Russians have been killed in action, even though a previous article in December by comrade Conrad said that Russia had suffered 100,000 casualties. Noting the disparity, she wonders if these troops have suddenly risen from the dead or are rather part of a wider disinformation campaign from the mainstream media.

Yes, it is true that the figures in that article were derived from the mainstream press, whether it be the Evening Standard or The Times. Yes, of course the mainstream western media dissembles, if not tells outright lies (Jeremy Corbyn is an anti-Semite?). And remember the old dictum that the first casualty of war is truth. But the real point is that nobody knows exactly how many Russian or Ukrainian soldiers have died, including generals in the field or their superiors. Now, we have a reasonably accurate idea of how many Ukrainian people have been displaced internally, fled abroad or gone to Britain, and so on. When it comes to specifics, or statistics, you can only go on the basis of what is put out there to give an idea. Even when the war eventually ends, we will still not know exactly how many died: only roughly.

Anyhow, our miffed reader - leaving aside numbers - has two core complaints about the offending article. Firstly, that Bakhmut, she says, is of tremendous strategic importance for the Russians, and taking it would unlock the way to other towns and cities. That is undoubtedly the case if Russian forces had open roads before them and faced no opposition, but surely they will. As for Bakhmut itself, what is its significance? Now turned to rubble, largely deserted, it does, though, have plenty of salt. Is Russia suffering a shortage of salt? No, of course not. But Ukraine is willing to fight for every yard because urban warfare gives a distinct advantage to defenders over attackers. For every Ukrainian lost, five Russian soldiers will be killed. Bakhmut has therefore become a cause célèbre for both sides - Bakhmut being “of more symbolic than operational importance”, using the words of US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin.

There has been a lot of chatter about a spring offensive, but you are more likely to have a winter offensive if the ground is solidly frozen. In spring it turns to mud, trapping the tanks, howitzers and humble lorries. And without lorries there can be no supplies of food, medical equipment … or ammunition.

Either way, if Bakhmut fell tomorrow, it would be a mistake to believe that this is the prelude to a generalised Russian offensive that sweeps away everything in front of it until it gets to Kyiv. Likewise, if Ukraine held it against the odds, that would obviously be a morale boost. But if they withdrew in a planned fashion, it would be no more humiliating than the Russian retreat from Kherson - which was tactically astute, especially when you look at its exposed position on the west bank of the Dnipro. In fact, Russian forces withdrew in very good order despite the crap in the western media about a disorderly rout, etc. If Zelensky and his generals order a ‘fighting withdrawal’ and can pull it off - then why not do it? It would not signal the start of a generalised rout.

Moving on to another complaint, we are told that the suggestion that invading Russian troops looted and raped is a disgraceful slur. Don’t you know such activity is against the UN convention! This is naivety of the first order.


Go back to the very beginnings of class society and the outbreak of warfare, what does an invading army do in a hostile environment? If the other side instantly surrenders, greets the invaders with garlands of flowers and hands them the keys to the treasury, then maybe there would be no mass killings, raping and mayhem. But resistance invites such behaviour and the stiffer the resistance, the more likely is the commanding general to give the go‑ahead for sacking whole cities and general extermination. Think of Titus and the destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE.

Even liberation armies can do terrible things to their own people. Doubtless that is why Mao Zedong issued his famous order for members of the People’s Liberation Army: ‘Do not disturb a single hair on the head of a peasant, do not take a single grain of rice.’ He would hardly issue such an instruction unless some of his troops were pillaging, looting, raping, etc. The PLA had to become one with the common people if it was to achieve victory.

But dreadful behaviour is the norm in war. As the American civil war Union army general, William Sherman, famously said, “war is hell” and “glory is all moonshine”. In November 1864 he ordered his 60,000 Federal troops to head out of the burning city of Atlanta and begin their long march into the Confederate heartlands of the deep south. His army were not going to be supplied from the north by land nor by ships from the sea. Instead they would live off what they could take.

His army looted and burnt their way through Georgia and then South Carolina. Sherman’s idea was to terrorise the rebel white population into submission. Sherman’s army left a 700 miles-long and 50-60 miles-wide trail of devastation behind them. The Confederacy’s days were numbered. General Robert E Lee surrendered on November 6 1865.The suffering and the trauma felt by ordinary white folk is wonderfully evoked in The Band’s ‘The night they drove old Dixie down’ (1969).

In the North Sherman was proclaimed a national hero. In the South he was vilified as a 19th century Genghis Khan who violated the principles of ‘civilized warfare’ because his troops made war on non-combatants.

For the pro-Kremlin left to refuse to believe that Russian troops loot and rape, that Russian troops have not committed massacres and other such terrible crimes, is to desert reality. No, war, especially conducted by an invading army, is hell.