Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Bakhmut: final battle for the Ukrainian Donbass

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After the capture of Lysychansk, Russian troops are advancing in the Donetsk region. The battle for the Ukrainian Donbass is likely to be decided in the cities of Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut.

Destructed skyscraper in Kramatorsk, May 2022

In the struggle for Donbass a crucial phase has begun. After Russian troops conquered the cities of Sievjerodonetsk and Lysychansk, almost the entire Luhansk region is now occupied. The fiercest fighting is currently raging in the west and south of the region. It is about the key cities in the Donetsk region that are still under Kiev's control: Sloviansk, Kramatorsk and Bakhmut. All three have strategic but also symbolic importance for both sides.

Slovyansk: The place where the war started in 2014

Tranquil Sloviansk was hardly known outside of the Donbass. The eastern Ukrainian provincial town with around 100,000 inhabitants was at best mentioned in the media thanks to its mineral springs. That all changed in April 2014 when the place was catapulted into world news. Sloviansk became the first eastern Ukrainian city captured by local separatists with the help of Russian intelligence. Moscow denied any involvement at the time. Sloviansk became the first base of the pro-Russian separatists. Why? Observers explain this with the location – far away from the big cities and therefore hidden and yet close to the strategically important M03 trunk road, which runs from the capital Kyiv via Kharkiv to the border with Russia and then on towards Rostov-on-Don leads.

Separatists in Sloviansk, April 2014

At that time, a few dozen armed men were able to storm the police station, occupy the administration and take control of the city. At the top: former Russian intelligence officer Igor Girkin, alias Strelkov. Girkin later said in numerous interviews that he and his people had come from Crimea, which had just been annexed at the time. Similar to Russian soldiers in Crimea before them, Girkin men initially wore balaclavas, balaclavas, so that their faces could not be seen. The mayor of Sloviansk supported the separatists and Girkin declared herself “Minister of Defense of the Donetsk People's Republic”.

Ukrainian army and secret services tried to liberate the city as part of the so-called “anti-terrorist operation” (ATO). The April fighting for Sloviansk was the first in the Donbass war. Ukraine was unsuccessful, losing soldiers and heavy equipment, including helicopters. In Sloviansk, Kyiv had to learn painfully how to wage war against aggressors at home. There was particularly heavy fighting on Mount Karachun to control the television tower there. The separatists turned off Ukrainian channels and turned on Russian ones. The Ukrainian troops were only able to completely liberate the city during an offensive in early July 2014. Girkin and more than 1,000 separatist fighters fled to Donetsk. Since then, Sloviansk has been under Kiev's control.

Kramatorsk: command center of Ukrainian troops

Neighboring Kramatorsk is a completely different caliber. In the spring of 2014 it was also occupied by separatists and – after around three months – freed again. Among other things, there was fighting over a strategically important military airport that Ukrainian forces were able to hold. In the fall of 2015, Kramatorsk, with a population of around 150,000 at the time, became the seat of administration in Donetsk Oblast, which is under Kiev's control. Ukrainian state organs from the city of Donetsk, which separatists are occupying, have relocated to Kramatorsk. The Ukrainian forces in Donbass have set up their command center there.

Kramatorsk is one of the most important industrial locations in eastern Ukraine. The largest and most important plant is the Novokramatorsk Machine Building Works (NKMZ), which describes itself as “Europe's largest manufacturer” of heavy machinery. NKMZ mainly produces equipment for mining, Russia was the largest customer until 2014. Production has been halted since the Russian invasion in February 2022.

The Kramatorsk railway station after the rocket attack on April 8, 2022

In April, Kramatorsk Central Station made headlines around the world when a Russian missile hit it. More than 50 people died, mostly refugees, including children who wanted to leave the city.

Bakhmut: The Salt of Ukraine

The third particularly important town in the region is called Bakhmut. It lies on a trunk road that leads to Lysychansk and is also considered the most important supply route for Ukrainian troops. There was fierce fighting there in 2014 and 2015.

Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway, May 2022

In Soviet times and up until 2016, the city was called Artemivsk, named after a Bolshevik. Bachmut is the historical name and was used as part of the so-called  reinstated decommunization. Flags of the “Donetsk People's Republic” were also flying here in the spring of 2014, but the Ukrainian army was able to drive the separatists out at the time.

Bahmut with around 70,000 inhabitants is the smallest of the three cities, but it is also important – especially for the Ukrainian economy. Two companies have an outstanding position. On the one hand there is Artwinery, one of the largest producers of sparkling wines in Eastern Europe, also known abroad for its Crimean sparkling wine. There is also Artemsil, a world-renowned manufacturer of table salt from near Bakhmut. Artemsil supplied up to 90 percent of Ukraine's salt needs, but deliveries have been halted for security reasons since the Russian invasion. The prices for salt have therefore risen sharply in Ukraine. The country is now importing this food from abroad, including Germany.

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