Before-and-after images of the destroyed Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

A year ago, the eastern Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, home to about 70,000 people, was known locally for its salt mines and sparkling wine. Today, it is a symbol of Russia’s brutal and relentless war.

Both armies have been heavily shelling the city for months, as seen in the video recently released by the Ukrainian military.

Ukrainian forces have been pushing back against Russian troops and Wagner Group mercenaries, many of whom were released from Russian prisons and sent to the front after brief training, since the fall, making the battle for Bakhmut the longest of the war.

Over the weekend, Moscow claimed to have taken Bakhmut, but Kiev denied this, saying its forces still held a small part of the city and were launching counterattacks as part of a plan to encircle the area .

Most civilians have fled. Green, leafy streets are now scorched landscapes, as shown in before-and-after satellite images from Maxar Technologies. Aerial images of the roughly 10 square miles of Bakhmut reveal how homes, schools, shops and a red-roofed theater have been flattened.

If the city has fallen to Russia, as President Vladimir Putin claims, it would be the only significant territorial gain for Moscow since last summer. For Ukrainians, Bakhmut has come to represent resistance. President Volodymyr Zelensky in December called the city “the fortress of our morality.”

The value of the city at this point is more about politics and morals than about strategy. Leaked US intelligence documents showed Washington warned Ukraine it could not retain Bakhmut and urged Kiev to drop the fight.

On a weekend visit to Hiroshima, Japan, where the United States dropped an atomic bomb in 1945, Zelensky said the images of the ruin there “totally reminded me of Bakhmut and other similar settlements and cities.”

“For today, Bakhmut is only in our hearts,” he said, referring to what little remains of the centuries-old city.

Ukrainian military officers and personnel on the ground have said that Ukrainian forces now hold only a small part of the city, near a destroyed statue of a Soviet MiG-17 fighter jet. However, Ukraine has made gains on the flanks to the south and north, potentially setting the stage for a counterattack.

Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, described this approach as a “semi-encirclement,” which would force Russian troops on the defensive. On Monday, Maliar wrote on Telegram that the defense of Bakhmut had served a military purpose.

“Heavy losses have been inflicted on the enemy; we have gained time for certain actions which will be discussed later,” he wrote.

Some analysts believe Russia’s lines could extend into Bakhmut if Moscow defends the city without the help of Wagner’s troops, who are said to have led the fight west of the city. On Monday, a Telegram account affiliated with Wagner founder Yevgeniy Prigozhin said mercenary soldiers would begin leaving the city on Thursday.

“It’s a pyrrhic victory,” said James Rands, an analyst at Janes, a London-based military intelligence firm. “We don’t know how many losses Russia has suffered, but they are many. It’s a lot of time and energy and all they have is some broken rubble.”

Some analysts argue that the tragic devastation of Bakhmut—symbolic weight aside—could serve at least one strategic function for Ukraine. Even if the city itself was not considered vital to Russia’s war aims before the Wagner Group focused on it, prolonged fighting could divert Russian resources from other objectives. “There will be somewhere along the front line where Russia will try to push,” Rand said. “If you hold them back and continue the fight there, that’s an absolutely devastated city, but you’ve held that fire in one place.”

Taylor reported from Kharkiv, Ukraine. Claire Parker and Jennifer Hassan contributed to this report.

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