The fight for Bakhmut has been raging for months but, according to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a Russian victory over the Donetsk city would not prove all that strategically advantageous for Moscow.
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin told reporters from Jordan Monday. “The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight.”
Austin said he would not predict whether Moscow would be able to successfully take Bakhmut, which both Ukrainian and Russian forces have said has been a brutal fight.
“What I do see on a daily basis is the Russians continuing to pour in a lot of ill-trained and ill-equipped troops, and those troops are very quickly meeting their demise,” Austin said, referring to both Russian military recruits and Wagner forces pulled from the Russian penal system last year.
Ukrainian officials have said the fight for Bakhmut has been one of the toughest yet as Russia continues to send men to the Donetsk sector despite significant losses.
“The enemy, regardless of losses, does not stop storming the city of Bakhmut and its surroundings,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces said Monday.
It is unclear how many soldiers have been killed fighting over Bakhmut, which has been all but decimated after more than four months of brutal ground and air warfare, with some Ukrainian troops describing it last week as a city “on fire.”
Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has led the charge for the city and has attempted to employ similar tactics it used when it took Soledar earlier this year by encircling the town.
Austin also attributed any Russian progress in the area to the mercenary troops but suggested the reported divisions between Wagner and the Russian military were increasingly evident when he said, “The fissures are there.”
“I would say the Wagner forces have been a bit more effective than the Russian forces,” he told reporters. “Having said that, we have not seen exemplary performance from Russian forces.”
Defense officials have long argued that Russia’s efforts to take Bakhmut do not hold up strategically with any tactical advantage it would gain in correlation to the amount of resources it has thrown at just one sector along the Ukrainian front lines.
Just after intense fighting began to kick off in the region, the U.K. defense ministry in early December pointed out that the fight for Bakhmut had already become “disproportionately costly” for Russia “relative to [the] possible gains.”
“Russia has prioritized Bakhmut as its main offensive effort since early August 2022,” the ministry said during an intelligence update. “The capture of the town would have limited operational value.
“There is a realistic possibility that Bakhmut’s capture has become primarily a symbolic, political objective for Russia,” the ministry argued over three months ago.