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Russia claimed victory in the battle for the strategic Ukrainian city of Bakhmut

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A small city in eastern Ukraine, once home to 70,000 people, is now empty and demolished. Russia claimed victory in Bakhmut a few days ago. It used the private Wagner military force to take territory there in the longest and bloodiest battle in the war. The many analysts following this fight include a native of Ukraine, Kateryna Stepanenko with the Institute for the Study of War. So we called her up to talk.

You know, I should just tell you my hypothesis. My presumption is that Bakhmut itself is not all that important, but maybe you're going to tell me otherwise. So maybe we should begin the interview right there. What significance, if any, is this particular city other than it's been written about a lot in recent weeks?

KATERYNA STEPANENKO: That's a good question. I mean, I just published a piece about, what was the significance of Bakhmut from the beginning of the war? - and why it had diminished in operational significance by the end of the battle.

INSKEEP: Now my thinking here was that one town or another is really not that important, certainly not as important as who destroys what military force. Stepanenko had her own view.

STEPANENKO: So originally, the battle for Bakhmut was set to be completed in October - right? - so right around the same time that Putin was completing his partial mobilization. And it was something that he needed immediately, but he wasn't able to achieve it. And then the next date was New Year's, right? He needed to achieve some sort of victory anywhere, and he wasn't able to do that. And ultimately, Bakhmut, you know, reached the point where now it's causing a lot more concern, especially within the Russian military correspondents, military bloggers world, where they're worried that Russia will not be able to continue an offensive past Bakhmut because it had culminated.

INSKEEP: I recently read a dispatch in The New Yorker magazine by a correspondent who spent two weeks with a Ukrainian unit on the front lines near the city of Bakhmut. And the overwhelming impression of that article is of people being killed, that the Wagner group had these conscript recruits that they pushed forward like zombies. It was sad. And many, many of them died, but they also killed many, many Ukrainians. The Ukrainian unit in question had only a few veterans left, and the rest of the slots were filled by recent draftees replacing people who had been killed. This seems to have been a place of enormous death.

STEPANENKO: Yes, it is. It is, in fact, true. It's something that - it's an operation that lasted for a year. It exhausted a lot of Ukrainian troops. It also killed a lot of Ukrainian troops. However, the defense itself has proven to be strategically important for Ukrainian forces who have likely culminated - Wagner attack in Bakhmut. This all is becoming more evident against the backdrop of Ukrainian-planned counteroffensives and is exposing a major weakness in why the culminated forces are not necessarily a great strategy for Russia in the long term.

INSKEEP: We also hear reports that suggest that Russia is running out of equipment. They're having to draw on older and older Soviet-era supplies of equipment to keep their troops with tanks and artillery and other important things. Is Ukraine receiving weapons and supplies more rapidly than they are destroyed?

STEPANENKO: I wouldn't say so. Russia still has that capacity to draw on old storages, on old supplies and put them on the battlefield. That is something that we are still not overpowering Russia in. However, Ukrainians did signal that they respect a lot more quality over quantity, and they have been very smart in the way that they ration their HIMARS strikes, for example, their Storm Shadows. So in that sense, the strategy approach here that Russia has is less focused on the long-term impacts on their stockpiles than what Ukrainians have, who have to conserve and understand that they have limited stock available to them to fight with.

INSKEEP: Kateryna Stepanenko, thanks so much for your insights. Really appreciate it.

STEPANENKO: Thank you so much, as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.