Inside the ‘Bakhmut meat grinder’: How Russia forced Ukrainians to retreat from Artyomovsk, their supposed ‘fortress’ in Donbass
The battle for Artyomovsk (called Bakhmut by the Ukrainians) began in August 2022, and gradually turned into the epicenter of fighting between Russia and Ukraine. While other parts of the front remained relatively stable, both sides actively brought forces to this small city. For Kiev, which in May 2022 suffered a defeat at Azovstal that helped undermine its image, Artyomovsk became the new Mariupol. Ukrainian propaganda labeled it ‘the Bakhmut Fortress’, and attempted to give an air of heroism to those fighting there.
Despite the fact that the city has no strategic importance for advancing westward, Russian troops accepted the challenge posed by Ukrainian propaganda. So what did Moscow gain from the nine-month-long ‘Bakhmut meat grinder’?
From a provincial town to a military fortress
In the nineteenth century, Artyomovsk was a provincial town in the Russian Empire and the administrative center of the developing Donbass region. As other cities grew, however, its role became less prominent. By the beginning of the Russian offensive in February 2022, the city had a population of about 70,000. It was home to several industrial facilities including a sparkling wine factory where battles took place in early 2023. According to the Ukrainian authorities, by that time 60% of the city had already been destroyed.
The importance of the city grew tremendously after the start of Russia’s military operation in February 2022. Initially, when Russian troops broke the first line of fortifications in the area of Popasnaya, Zolotoye, and the Lisichansk-Severodonetsk agglomeration, Artyomovsk was an important transport hub. It kept the Ukrainian front line connected with the rest of the country.
After the Russians managed to break this line of defense and completely removed Kiev's forces from the territory of the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), Artyomovsk went from being a transport hub to becoming Ukraine’s second line of defense around the Bakhmutka River. This strip ran from Ukrainian positions opposite Gorlovka – since 2014 controlled by the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) – in the south up to Seversk in the north, running straight into the Seversky Donets, the main river in Donbass.
Artyomovsk could not have been taken without this line of defense being broken. Since July 2022, PMC Wagner fighters have been focused on doing just that, preparing the ground for a successful encirclement of the city.
Favorable conditions for encircling Artyomovsk began forming in May of last year, after the Russian victory in Popasnaya. By the end of the month, Svetlodarsk – a satellite city of the Uglegorsk thermal power plant that Ukrainian forces turned into a defensive hub – was captured. It took two months to seize the city, and the power plant did not suffer major damage.
Fighting also continued north of Gorlovka. In addition to the main goal of advancing toward Artyomovsk, it was important to move the Ukrainian troops further away from the city to ensure the safety of its residents. Since the start of the offensive, 101 people have died in Gorlovka, and 360 more have been injured. During the battles for the settlements of Semigorye, Kodema, two villages named Zaitsevo, Mayorsk, Kurdyumovka, and Ozaryanovka, which lasted throughout the summer and autumn of 2022, this task was partially accomplished. Gorlovka’s safety was ensured from the north and northeast, while threats remained only from the west and northwest.
Ukrainian fortifications were designed to deter a Russian offensive from the direction of Gorlovka and from the south. But due to another offensive from the east, the tactical value of these fortifications was reduced and, compared to other sections of the front, they were quickly stormed.
By December, Russian troops had reached the southern outskirts of Artyomovsk and blocked them. While back in October the presence of the Russian army in the southern outskirts of the city was limited to the advanced units fighting for Opytnoye, by December the ‘preliminary work’ in the fields just outside the city was fully complete.
By that time, the enemy was fully engaged in the battle for Artyomovsk, which the media turned into a symbol of the Ukrainian army, much like the battles for Mariupol and Azovstal. Ukrainians made up a legend about the ‘Bakhmut Fortress’ and were not ready to surrender it. In fact, they constantly sent reinforcements to the city. Accordingly, Russia’s next targets were Kleshcheyevka, an important fortified area southwest of Artyomovsk, and Opytnoye, which covered the city’s southern districts.
These tactical goals could be accomplished only by the end of January. By that time, the situation had become a lot worse for the Ukrainian forces. The advance of the Russians in the south endangered the road between Konstantinovka and Artyomovsk, and in the north the fall of Soledar meant that the city would be soon encircled. As the events unfolded in January, the Ukrainian army could still safely flee the city, with six months of defense working in its favor. The US reportedly suggested a similar strategy, but Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky apparently preferred to fight to the end.
The battles in the city
Throughout February, the Ukrainians tried to contain the Russian offensive on the Konstantinovka-Artyomovsk road, preventing the Wagner Group from getting to Chasov Yar and capturing the main fortified area in the village of Krasnoye. Ukraine moved reserves to the area, which allowed these positions to be held and forcing the Russians to take action from the north.
Failing to capture Krasnoye, the Russians moved to the western outskirts of Artyomovsk, to the area of a former artillery unit known for its Soviet aircraft monument – a popular photo spot for Ukrainian journalists, volunteers, and military. The monument was destroyed during the fighting. According to some rumors, it was blown up by the Ukrainians to prevent the Russian military from taking victory photos at the site.
In March, with this section of the front needing more Ukrainian reserves, units of the 92nd Mechanized Brigade, formerly stationed near Kupyansk, were brought in. However, by that time the Wagner Group had advanced deeper into the southwestern outskirts of Artyomovsk. It occupied the Kvadraty district and continued on towards Tchaikovsky Street, blocking this part of the city. At the same time, Russian troops made progress in the southern part of the city and established control over the districts of Budenovka and Sobachevka on March 29.
Throughout April, the Ukrainians continued deterring Russian attacks along the line of Krasnoye village-Tchaikovsky Street. The Russians were able to take control of the industrial college complex and reach the intersection of Tchaikovsky and Yubileynaya Streets only on April 28. The defense of Artyomovsk then practically split into two parts. Ukrainian forces started blowing up high-rise buildings near the area of the aircraft monument, fearing that they would be used as observation positions for monitoring the village roads used by the Ukrainian troops for supplies and evacuation.
In December 2022, in addition to capturing Kleshcheyevka and Opytnoye, Russian troops were focused on advancing eastward to the industrial part of the city. The Wagner Group previously controlled only the city's outskirts, but in December they took nearly complete control of the industrial area, as well as the forest area to the north. This made it possible to advance to the Myasokombinat and Zabakhmutka districts of Artyomovsk, and also helped in the capture of Soledar in January.
The victory in Soledar allowed Russia to double the pressure on Artyomovsk. In order to prevent the Russians from breaking through the front, the Ukrainians brought more reserves in. However, this helped only partially. The Russians forded the Bakhmutka in several places and secured their flank against Seversk by taking Krasnopol, Sacco and Vanzetti, and Nikolaevka. They then placed a barrier against Slaviansk near the village of Zheleznyanskoye.
After that, the Russians turned southwest and captured the last major fortifications in Krasnaya Gora and Paraskovievka. During Soviet times, large military warehouses were located at the site of the salt mine in Paraskovievka. The Ukrainians could use this infrastructure to create a line of defense, but this did not allow them to stabilize the front.
The retreat of the Ukrainian army
At this point, it became apparent that the southern flank of the Artyomovsk encirclement had run into the Ukrainian defense of Krasnoye. At that time, the Wagner Group experienced a shortage of shells, which limited artillery action. As soon as the issue was resolved, the fighters moved on to Berkhovka, one of the last routes out of Artyomovsk.
The capture of Berkhovka on February 24 and access to the Berkhovsky reservoir forced the Ukrainians to retreat from Stupki, the northern district of Artyomovsk, and opened the way southwest to the village of Artyomovskoye (Khromove), the last relatively safe route out of the city.
The day after the liberation of Berkhovka, the Ukrainians withdrew from Yagodnoye. They then blew up the Severny Stavka dam, which limited their ability to counterattack from the northwestern outskirts of Artyomovsk. February ended badly for the Ukrainian forces – the Russians established relatively stable fire control over both of the remaining roads from the city, while the warming weather complicated the Ukrainians’ chances of escaping through the fields.
Meanwhile, the Russians continued advancing deeper into Artyomovsk from the east and south. Urban battles tied down significant forces on both sides, but the superior artillery and assault tactics of the Russians allowed them to prevail. During these battles, the head of the Wagner Group, Evgeny Prigozhin, repeatedly stressed that the main task was to pin down and destroy the enemy's manpower.
On March 2, a Ukrainian UAV unit commander with the military call sign ‘Madyar’ shot a video in which he gave a negative assessment of the situation in Artyomovsk and said that the Ukrainians should get out of there. He also accused Ukraine’s young people of being unwilling to fight. One of his subordinates pledged that after the war he would beat up all those who evaded conscription. On March 3, ‘Madyar’ and his fighters fled from Artyomovsk under the pretext of an order from the commander.
On the same day, Prigozhin recorded a video message for Zelensky, saying that the Ukrainian garrison had one exit route left. He also showed three Ukrainian prisoners among whom there were no professional soldiers – just one old man and two youths.
By March 8, the entire eastern part of the city was controlled by Russian troops, and the Ukrainians had been pushed to the western bank of the Bakhmutka River. As the Wagner Group advanced, the narrative in the Western media swiftly changed – whereas earlier Artyomovsk had been called a strategically important point, on March 6 the Pentagon chief announced that the city had more symbolic than strategic value.
Despite this, the Ukrainian Army refused to loosen its grip and transferred additional reserves to the city – including the 67th Mechanized Brigade, known for its neo-Nazi and Ukrainian nationalist ideology, and formed from extremist Right Sector units. According to Prigozhin, these units were supposed to surround and attack the Russian flanks.
The Ukrainian reserves suffered considerable losses during clashes with Wagner fighters. Some of their officers, including the well-known neo-Nazi Dmitry ‘Davinci’ Kotsyubailo, the commander of one of the battalions of the 67th Brigade, were killed by Russian artillery.
Kiev nevertheless still had enough resources to stabilize the Bogdanovka-Artyomovskoye section, which connected units positioned in Artyomovsk with the rest of the Ukrainian troops, via village roads. This forced Russian troops to move the pressure to the north, along the route to Slaviansk. Dubovo-Vasilevka and Zaliznyanskoye were liberated on March 9 and March 15, respectively. Several heights were also captured during this advance, which considerably secured the northern flank against an offensive from the direction of Slaviansk.
Attempts to storm the city continued from the north, and the Russians aimed to take control of the grounds of the Artyomovsk Metal Processing Plant (AZOM). The plant was stormed on March 10, and on March 14, the Vostokmash plant, where Zelensky handed out awards to Ukrainian soldiers in December 2022, was captured. AZOM was fully liberated on April 4.
By that time, PMC Wagner had launched a large-scale offensive in the central part of the city, making use of positions in the north and south. The ruined city administration building had come under the control of Russian troops by April 2. Abandoning attempts to completely encircle the city, the Russians focused on pushing the enemy to the west.
Despite the success of the storm brigade troops, there was a constant danger of a ‘deblocking' strike by the Ukrainian Army. Additional units of the regular Russian Armed Forces were transferred to the area to eliminate this threat. During most of April, the Russians attempted to reach Ukraine’s last fortified area – a district of high-rise buildings in the west of the city, and the Cherema and Novy districts.
The storm troops were forced to launch an offensive from the east, the city’s administrative districts, and the north, breaking through the Ukrainian defense in the Posyolok residential district and by the Alley of the Roses. The railway near the Bakhmut-2 train station served as the line of defense.
On April 22, despite serious resistance from the Ukrainians and a number of counterattacks, the vital location was seized by the Russians. This cleared the path towards the districts of high-rises from the east. To the north, the Russians reached Kraynaya Street, just to the south of which is a large Soviet military base.
At the same time, fighting intensified near the road between Chasov Yar and Artyomovsk. This road was regularly attacked by Russian troops, but they did not have direct control over it. A Ukrainian fortified area passed through here, covering the road to the south and limiting visual control over the remaining escape routes from Artyomovsk.
The capture of this fortified area of over 2.5 square kilometers was the final chapter in the long battle for Artyomovsk. In early May, Prigozhin announced that the offensive potential of his troops was nearly exhausted due to a lack of ammunition and difficulties in recruiting new soldiers. He warned about the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive, stressing once again that his men needed ammunition and that the positions to the north and south of the city had to be covered by Russian troops. By that time, the advance of Wagner troops averaged about 150-200 meters per day, and the only thing that could conceivably save the Ukrainian garrison was an attempt to break the siege from the outside.
One final push
On May 10, Ukrainian forces launched an offensive from Chasov Yar in two directions – south towards Kleshcheyevka and north in the direction of the Berkhovskoye reservoir. By that time, the 9th Motorized Rifle Regiment, the 4th, 72nd, and 200th Brigades of the Russian Armed Forces, and the 106th Airborne Division, sent to reinforce the flanks around Artyomovsk, had taken up defensive positions in these areas.
At the time, the Russian forward positions northwest and southwest of Artyomovsk, including the footholds on the west bank of the Seversky Donets-Donbass Canal, were seen as vulnerable. The Ukrainian defense of Krasnoye prevented Russian troops from completing the encirclement, thus making the two Russian outposts the target of the Ukrainian offensive.
To mount an effective defense, Russian troops transformed their advance positions into a forward defensive line. Withdrawing after the start of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Russians barraged the incoming enemy with artillery, forcing them to engage in skirmishes. This strategy had a number of weaknesses: Most notably, a number of high ground positions west of Artyomovsk critical to the encirclement of the city were abandoned.
The Ukrainian garrison was about to breathe a sigh of relief and regroup, but it was at that time that Wagner units launched their final offensive against the three remaining fortified areas in the west of the city: Gnezdo, Konstruktor, and Domino. Following a fierce battle, they managed to gain control over all three, with Domino being the last to fall on May 18. From then on, the Ukrainians only had control over the low-rise residential area and a handful of high-rise buildings in the Samolet stronghold along the road to Krasnoye. The Russians effectively won the race against time and gained control of Artyomovsk before the Ukrainians could break through the Russian flanks.
On May 20, Ukrainian forces lost their remaining fortified positions in the city. Wagner soldiers drove them out of the Samolet stronghold, celebrating victory and announcing the end of the ‘Bakhmut meat grinder’.
According to Prigozhin, the importance of the battle for Artyomovsk lies in the fact that it allowed Russia to grind down Ukrainian reserves – forcing Kiev to focus on Artyomovsk – and to disrupt Ukraine's offensive in other parts of the front, specifically in the direction of Melitopol. “On October 8, 2022, together with Army General Sergey Surovikin, it was decided to launch Operation ‘Bakhmut meat grinder’ – an assault on the village of Bakhmut in order to provoke Vladimir Zelensky to throw in as many forces as possible to hold Bakhmut. In Bakhmut, we grinded the Ukrainian forces, hence the name – ‘Bakhmut meat grinder,’” Prigozhin said.
In any case, the more than nine-month-long battle for Artyomovsk permanently changed the perception of the conflict, forcing both Ukraine and Russia to abandon any ideas of a fast-paced campaign or deep breakthroughs.
The battles discussed in this article took place barely 30 kilometers deep into the frontlines. In conditions of summer heat, fall mud, and winter frost, it largely resembled the First World War. According to Prigozhin’s estimates, the liberation of the entire territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic will take another one and a half to two years.
It will now be up to the Russian Army to advance further to the west. Along the way, they will find the city of Slaviansk, where the Russian uprising of 2014 started, as well as Ukraine’s third line of defense, located along Krivoy Torets. The Ukrainian positions in Seversk also need to be dealt with on the northern flank.
On the other hand, a number of military experts suggested that the Wagner units will now be reassigned to other key areas – either to storm the town of Ugledar or to repel a potential counterattack by the Ukrainian Army. Prigozhin has called for a 25-day pause for his troops to recover and regain their fighting ability after the long battle for Artyomovsk.
In a video announcing the complete capture of Artyomovsk on May 20, Prigozhin said that after May 25, Wagner units will depart to the rear to rest and regroup.
However, significant Ukrainian forces still remain to the west of Artyomovsk, having seized a number of positions during the May counteroffensive. They have established a foothold in Chasov Yar and hold the line between Krasnoye and Minkovka, thus preventing Russian forces from stabilizing the front along the Seversky Donets-Donbass canal. With the Russian flag flying over Artyomovsk and Russian soldiers in full control of the battlefield, the priority now is to inflict maximum damage on the Ukrainian forces massed for the counteroffensive, and drive them out to the western bank of the canal.
By Vladislav Ugolny, a Russian journalist born in Donetsk