May 23, 2023

Longest Battle of Ukraine War Leaves City of Bakhmut in Ruins Transcript

Longest Battle of Ukraine War Leaves City of Bakhmut in Ruins Transcript
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Russian forces claim to have conquered the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s east. Kyiv denied that and said the nine-month battle for the city continues. Read the transcript here.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):

Russian forces claim to have conquered the City of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s East. Kyiv denied that and said the nine-month battle for the city continues. Meantime, a force of pro-Ukrainian troops who say they’re Russians made an incursion into a Russian border region. Stephanie Sy reports.

Stephanie Sy (00:18):

In Bakhmut, Russian soldiers walk through a city they destroyed and now claim they’ve conquered. A brutal nine-month battle has devastated the 400-year-old city, which had a pre-war population of more than 70,000 people. Russian State Media showed these soldiers raising the Russian flag in the ruins of the city, next to it, the flag of the Wagner Mercenary Group, which led the assault.

Speaker 3 (00:47):

Without exaggeration this is a historic moment. This is it. There are no more houses. The city has been taken.

Stephanie Sy (00:55):

The Wagner Group was founded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a convicted Russian criminal, and Kremlin connected businessman who over the weekend claimed victory.

Speaker 4 (01:08):

Thanks to Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin for giving us the high honor to defend our motherland. We fought not only with the Ukrainian armed forces in Bakhmut, but also with the Russian bureaucracy.

Stephanie Sy (01:18):

Earlier this month, Prigozhin threatened to withdraw his troops from the city, accusing Russian military officials of withholding ammunition and blaming them for the death of Wagner fighters.

Speaker 4 (01:32):

We have a 70% shortage of ammunition [inaudible 00:01:37] where is the ammunition? Look at them.

Stephanie Sy (01:39):

But President Vladimir Putin yesterday praised the private military group. Ukrainian officials say the battle for Bakhmut is not over and that its soldiers continue to advance from the north and south to encircle Russian troops inside the city. At the G7 meeting over the weekend, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy compared the city to Hiroshima after the US dropped an atomic bomb on it in World War II.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy (02:06):

But you have to understand that there is nothing, they destroyed everything. There are no buildings. It’s a bit, it’s a tragedy, but for today Bakhmut is only in our hearts.

Stephanie Sy (02:20):

Today in another development, a group of anti Putin, Russian defectors claimed on social media videos to have crossed into Russian territory and liberated parts of the border region of Belgorod.

Speaker 6 (02:34):

We are Russians just like you. We are people just like you. We want our children to grow up in peace and be free people, but this has no place in today’s Putin’s Russia,

Stephanie Sy (02:45):

The so-called Liberty of Russia allegiance says their end goal is to end Putin’s dictatorship. Joining us now to discuss what is going on in Bakhmut and other developments is Dara Massicot. She is a senior policy researcher at the RAND Corporation. Dara, thank you for joining The News Hour. So what is going on in Bakhmut? Can the Russians claim victory or is this still going on?

Dara Massicot (03:10):

Well, the Russians are claiming victory. They occupy a large percentage of what remains of the city. Most of Bakhmut is destroyed right now. Ukraine still occupies areas on the heights not too far away from the city, and they’re claiming that they’re putting pressure on the Russian flanks. I think it’s safe to say that Russia probably has most of the city at this point. There’s perhaps one or two roads that lead out that the Ukrainians still have. Russia is desperate for a win, and this is just about the only win that they can come up with after a failed defensive.

Stephanie Sy (03:43):

I keep hearing that Bakhmut is not particularly strategically significant in this war. So why have nine months of such a hard fought battle continued?

Dara Massicot (03:54):

Well, the Ukrainian armed forces have really prioritized this area and their desire to keep it has been very strong. Russia has also fought very hard for it using, using conscripts, mobilized forces from Wagner I mean, and suffered a lot of casualties. If Russia is able to capitalize on taking Bakhmut and pressing forward, it does open up a significant road network. But what I’m seeing is an exhausted force that is not able to move forward.

Stephanie Sy (04:22):

The Ukrainians are still claiming that they have encircled at least part of the city. So if the Russians really have taken it over, is it your sense that they could hold Bakhmut or would that continue to be a challenge with Ukrainian forces on the outside flanks?

Dara Massicot (04:39):

So Ukraine is saying that they are pressuring the north and the south of Bakhmut, and they’re causing some localized retreats from Russian forces that are there. I can’t independently corroborate that they’ve encircled the actual city, but they are putting pressure on those units. And those are not high speed units. They’re made of mobilized, or they come from [inaudible 00:04:59] proxy forces, so it might be easier to disrupt them than other units that are further back.

Stephanie Sy (05:03):

So how big of a cost has this battle been to Russian forces? Especially as we talk about the potential for a Ukrainian counteroffensive this spring?

Dara Massicot (05:13):

The Russians have paid a heavy price for a counter offensive for not much gains. It comes from the way that they’re fighting this war, and in some places they’re using storm troops or human wave style assaults on Ukrainian positions, and it’s coming at a high price. I think it’s probably inevitable that Russia’s going to have to do another round of mobilization this year to replace the casualties.

Stephanie Sy (05:34):

I want to ask you about another development that’s been reported today, and that is that Russian defectors who are now anti Putin and they call themselves The Freedom of Russia. Legion claimed to have crossed the border from Ukraine into Russia and claimed to have “liberated parts of the Belgorod region,” which is on the border of Ukraine and Russia. How significant is that and what does it mean for them to have liberated parts of Belgorod?

Dara Massicot (06:06):

This is a really interesting story and it’s still developing, but this is essentially a group that is affiliated loosely with Ukrainian military, but it’s not aligned with the Ukrainian military unit by any stretch. They were actually able to move well inside Russia and the Russian authorities have confirmed that this is happening. It looks like from Twitter that a Russian telegram that they managed to steal a vehicle from a Russian border guard. So this is a very embarrassing situation for Russia. They’re trying to spin their way out of it right now, claiming that this is Ukrainian diversionary tactics for losing Bakhmut. But this is really a black eye and an embarrassment for the Russians.

Stephanie Sy (06:43):

Putin seems to be treating Bakhmut like it’s Stalingrad, like it’s going to change the tide of the war. Is that your sense that if the Russian forces have indeed captured this city that it would somehow turn the direction of the war?

Dara Massicot (06:59):

No, I think that he’s trying to spin whatever victory that he can come up with to show for the Russian people, for the amount of casualties that they’ve lost. They have had basically no successes over the past four or five months, if not longer than that frankly, and this is the best that they can come up with to spin it. I don’t think that it’s going to give them a strategic advantage this year. The force is simply too exhausted to try to move forward again in a meaningful way. I don’t think they have a capability for another large offensive this year.

Stephanie Sy (07:32):

Dara Massicot with the RAND Corporation thanks so much for joining The News Hour.

Dara Massicot (07:37):

Thank you for having me.

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