We do not know whether Bakhmut has been recaptured by Russia or remains partially controlled by Ukraine. What we do see is a razed city, a cemetery of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers, collapsed buildings, rubble and the silence of the “dead souls” that Nikolai Gogol described in his journey into deep Russian slavery after of the Napoleonic wars.
This city flattened by bombs and artillery is the most Dantesque symbol of a destructive occupation where before the war around 70,000 people lived and where today not a single building remains standing. Putin has gone back more than a century in the way he conducts war. It is estimated that more than 300,000 German and French soldiers died at Verdun in 1916, in a battle of attrition in which hundreds of thousands of projectiles destroyed the landscape. There are still around 800 hectares planted with explosives that were not detonated.
Verdun 1916, Stalingrad 1942-1943, Hiroshima 1945 and Bakhmut 2023. This is the dark journey of the most progressive century in history and at the same time the one that has caused the most deaths in acts of war. To proclaim that a sepulchral city has been conquered or retained seems to me a mockery of the dead buried in the ruins.
Barbara Tuchman's old thesis that all leaders in critical situations over the centuries knew what not to do and yet did it and thus ensured their doom can be applied to Vladimir Putin, who did not measure well the consequences of a rash decision full of unforeseen circumstances. The parade of a single tank in Moscow's Red Square on May 9 was evidence of a precarious army.
He did not count on the resistance of the Ukrainians with Zelenski at the head, nor the military and economic aid of the United States and Europe or the expansion of NATO with historically neutral countries such as Sweden and Finland. Russia was ready to unilaterally annex Crimea and to promote the secession of two Ukrainian regions, Luhansk and Donetsk, with a Russian-speaking majority, which today the Kremlin considers de facto territories of eternal Russia.
Recapturing Bakhmut today means controlling a large barren expanse of rubble without water, electricity or stewardship, a ghost town where Russian soldiers can raise the flag and proclaim a victory that does not change the balance of forces in the war. One of the constants of all war conflicts is the absence of the truth. Little is known about what Ukraine is doing along the hundreds of kilometers of front. There is no reliable data on the death toll on either side. But estimates raise the figure to more than two hundred thousand.
Putin has entrusted the mercenary group Wagner with offensives and resistance in the nerve points of the front. Its leader is Yevgeny Prigozhin, a convicted criminal, who has gone from owning a sandwich shop to leading the militia that faces the Ukrainian army. In fifteen months, Putin has had four generals in charge of Ukraine, which he has been replacing because of their ineffectiveness. Wagner's boss is in command at the front, criticizing the defense minister and the Kremlin's military strategists and threatening to withdraw from Bakhmut starting tomorrow. He is as strong and burly as a demagogue. Hundreds of his legionnaires have died and he asks for more weapons that never arrive.
Zelenski stood at the G-7 summit in Hiroshima and did not miss the opportunity to draw a parallel between the city destroyed by the atomic bomb, ordered by Truman in 1945, and the skeleton of the destroyed Bakhmut on Putin's orders.
Ukraine puts in the troops and many dead, but it cannot stand on its own. He needs the help of the Western allies. Fatigue and wear and tear on both sides can be the great ally to force a ceasefire and a negotiation in which both Russia and Ukraine will not be able to hold their positions because no one will win the war.
In the reflections of Henry Kissinger, who will turn one hundred years old on Saturday, he advocates for the mediation of China and also for the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO and the EU. The old artist of realpolitik claims that the war has made Ukraine too strong and it is better to have it in than out. Kissinger's analyzes have changed in fifteen months. The same has happened to many of us. You know when a war starts, but not when or how it will end. The global scenario will be different and the protagonists will be different. But what is certain is that Ukraine will never be Russian again by its own will.