By Grant W. Turner
For months experts have been wondering why Russia is determined to capture Bakhmut and its surrounding territory, in spite of a staggering death toll and loss of resources. From March through early September, it made strategic sense to attack the key supply routes around the city and particularly to its north, because Kremlin forces were attempting to create and then capture the Slovyansk-Lysychans’k-Bakhmut pocket (see one, two, and three). However, by the second week of September, Russia began losing most of its gains in the area and facing territorial losses elsewhere due to the launch of Ukraine’s eastern counter-offensive and subsequent Kherson counter-offensive. Nonetheless, the fighting surrounding the city has steadily intensified even though it has little to no strategic value, and it has distracted the Kremlin’s forces from more strategically significant priorities in the Kharkiv, northern Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions.
Most explanations for the continuation of this assault have focused on the ambitions of Yevgeny Prigozhin (founder of the private military corporation Wagner Group, which has been heavily involved in the area, at least since May), the new commanding general of Russia’s forces in Ukraine, and President Vladimir Putin’s need for a victory after a streak of losses, no matter how pyrrhic. Others have pointed towards the intersection of highways and railways that could become important should the tide of the war turn again. However, Prigozhin himself has stated that the goal is simply to inflict as many losses on Ukrainians as possible in a “meat grinder,” undermining these admittedly weak logistical explanations.
These theories do not seem to merit the sacrifice of thousands of Russian fighters and critical materials. There have been steady reports of 50–150 killed or wounded every day for months, possibly 8,000 dead from mid-September through October, and munitions have long been both in short supply. Further, caveats aside, the current commander of Russian forces in Ukraine appears to be more competent than previous generals. The fact he has likely been reinforcing the attacks around the city since the withdrawal from Kherson in November suggests a more significant strategic motive. Sodium chloride (a.k.a NaCl, salt) may very well be it.
Until the recent invasion, the largest producer of salt in Europe was “the state-owned enterprise Artyomsol,” which operated out of Soledar, just 15 kilometers northeast of Bakhmut. The region’s mines are known for some of the highest quality sodium chloride deposits on the continent, estimated at around 13 gigatonnes (Gt), with less than 2 percent extracted in over a century of production. In 2016, the company began modernizing its mines and processing plant to expand its capacity, but by April 2022, Russia’s attacks halted production indefinitely.
Salt is more than a vital nutrient. Sodium chloride is central to numerous industries. In fact, in 2019 over 50 percent of the NaCl market was used in industrial processes, while only 15 percent was for de-icing roads, and 11 percent was for human consumption. Mirroring this, in Europe, around 7 percent of salt was produced for human consumption, with over 50 percent of chemical production on the continent relying on the compound. Applications include the production of petroleum, steel, titanium, jet fuel, explosives, tires and car components, medicines and medical devices, plastics used in electronics and electrical infrastructure, clean water, fertilizer, cattle feed, cooking oils, textiles, construction materials, and glass.
Though Ukraine’s wealth of natural resources (see map) are not a primary driver of Russia’s attempt to absorb and erase the nation, they have long been coveted by Russia a long time net importer of salt. For instance, although technically not an import at the time, the mineral sourced from the vicinity of Bakhmut was one of the many things the USSR depended on its neighbor to provide (6.8 megatonnes [Mt] in 1985, an estimated 23 percent, according to CIUS). This dependency continued after the fall of the Soviet Union (see Figure 1, Figure 2, and Figure 3 [interactive charts]), so much so that over the last two decades Moscow became increasingly concerned it may lose access to the nation’s sodium chloride exports (2006, 2014). Numerous details concerning the salt trade dynamics of the two nations can be found in this timeline, created for this article’s brevity.
The data presented in the timeline and figures stand out for several reasons. First, there is a direct correlation between Russia’s sodium chloride imports, its production increases, and its military build up leading to its 2014 and 2022 attacks on Ukraine. Before its 2006 NaCl concerns, the nation had not imported more than 0.536 Mt since 1997. However, after the Kremlin announced its ambitious (but ill fated) military reforms in 2008, the figure has stayed above 0.807 Mt, averaging out to 1.206 Mt from 2008-2013 and 0.941 Mt from 2014-2020.
Similarly, Russian mines have long struggled to increase production capacities, with prospects for improvement looking grim as of 2009. That year was both the low point (1.6 Mt) and the definitive turning point in domestic production. After rapid growth, it plateaued from 2011 through 2015 (5.24-5.6 Mt), after which it would appear that the loss of Ukrainian imports and the 2016 sanctions drove an increase in domestic output once again. In both the pre-2014 and post-2014 worlds, it would seem that a large portion of the salt was consumed as part of its militarization and invasion programs. Perhaps coincidentally, there was a seven year lead time between the initial boost in sodium chloride consumption and both attacks.
Third, its 2022 invasion of Ukraine had several consequences. Early on, there were domestic limits placed on civilian purchases of table salt after panicked consumers rushed to stock up, and it is unclear if these remain in place, but it does suggest that confidence in the government is even shakier than normal. Now, Moscow risks losing access to over 40 percent of its sodium chloride imports, in part due to the 2022 sanctions, but also due to its increasingly aggressive behavior and the interests of its neighbors:
- Kazakhstan—due in part to Moscow threatening to make it the next Ukraine, and in part to its desire to diversify its foreign partnerships.
- Turkey—due to its NATO membership, its complicated economic and security relationship with Russia, and Eurasian ambitions (e.g. Organization of Turkic States).
- Azerbaijan—dissatisfaction with Moscow’s role in the Karabakh conflict and Baku’s increasing alignment with the West.
This is not to mention the loss of other currently minor contributors, or the question of what happens if Belarus pulls back on some of its support for Russia due to a change in political calculations (e.g. hedging and avoiding reliance on Russia)—opportunities which NATO leaders and allies should be better prepared to identify and exploit.
Even if Russia can maintain their imports, its own production may still be inadequate or unsustainable. Pre-existing issues with salt production could very well re-emerge as sanctions, labor and capital flight, a haphazard mobilization pulling out key industrial workers almost at random, a struggling war machine driven to strip household appliances for parts as weapons factories stall, and a demographic crisis all combine to undermine the nation’s industrial capacity and resilience. Help from countries such as China, the fourth largest importer of NaCl in 2020 (4.59 percent, $150 million) and tenth largest exporter (3.1 percent, $101 million), is also unlikely to be forthcoming, as Beijing looks to gain leverage over Russia, increase its salt consumption, edge Russia out of its dominant role Central Asia, and invest in Ukraine.
If powering its war effort, its recovery, and its likely rearmament for future imperial campaigns (perhaps during peace talks or an an armistice) are not adequate motives, there are several other reasons sodium chloride is a strategic resource for Russia and/or other key political players:
- It is unprofitable to ship NaCl over long distances (only10 percent of global production is shipped beyond the region of origin). Bakhmut could be better positioned for the bulk of Russia’s population and industry, than Russia’s primary salt manufacturers less than optimally positioned along the Kazakh border (see map), with the nearest operation more than double the distance by road to Moscow.
- Prigozhin may be seeking to personally profit from controlling the Artyomsol operation, mirroring his investments in various extraction industries in Syria and Africa. For Prigozhin in particular, victory at Bakhmut is make or break. If he can win, at least narratively, and combine the clout with a large source of revenue, his funds and leverage will reach new heights.
- An attempt to disrupt Europe’s access to Ukraine’s high quality sodium chloride (although, between its own productive capacities and those of Canada and the United States, shocks are unlikely).
- A sustained salt shortage could turn the Russian people against the government, despite the impacts of propaganda. Sodium chloride is culturally significant for Russians, and a bellwether for trust in the government’s ability to provide basic needs. During special occasions, including traditional weddings or greeting guests in various situations, it is customary to offer bread and salt. Additionally, pickled foods are a staple, in part because of their historical role as a preservative. Facing low quality food and shortages before its 2022 invasion, it is now struggling with high inflation, problems with supply, and hoarding. It would even appear that in Tula, a region west of Moscow, food stamps have been issued in an attempt to deal with shortages of salt, meat, and other staples.
- In its salt caverns, Ukraine may have some weapons caches (possibly the largest in Europe), or could even be storing some of its strategic fuel reserves, as other nations have been known to do. Additionally, Ukraine has also used the mines for shelter and surprise attacks behind enemy lines, leading Prigozhin to describe them as an underground network of cities tanks can travel through.
Its 2022 invasion has once again demonstrated that Russia and its military do not value human life in the slightest. In this sense, it is perfectly reasonable to accept that both individual egos and a desire to kill Ukrainians at any cost are primary motivators of the brutal assault on Bakhmut. However, in an expansionist empire that operates on corrupt networks of patronage, where internal stability and military power rely increasingly on domestic resources, acquiring a supply of salt closer to Russia’s industrial heart is undeniably in the interests of Putin’s regime and those who keep him in power.
In 2012, just two years before Russia’s 2014 attack, Ukraine’s sodium chloride production peaked at 6.189 Mt. It was the third largest exporter of salt in Europe and 10th largest in the world (the ninth largest by 2013 in terms of value: 3.29 percent, $103 million, of the global trade). As a consequence of Russia’s aggression, Ukraine’s production between 2014 and 2020 ranged only from 2.498 Mt and 1.78 Mt, leaving it as the 14th largest exporter on the continent and 36th largest in the world as of 2020 (0.49 percent, 16 million) (see Figure 2).
Russia, however, did not go unscathed. In 2013, it imported 1.79 Mt, making it the second largest importer of the chemical in Europe and the fifth largest in the world by value (5.67 percent, $179 million). By 2020, in the context of a comparable total global import market value of $3.26 billion, Russia was the 10th largest importer (0.807 Mt, 2.47 percent, $80.8 million) (see Figure 2).
In the context of Moscow’s 1992 goal of producing 7-7.3Mt (achieved in 2017), and the Soviet Union’s peak production being between 9.5 Mt (according to the USGS) or possibly as high as 27.565 Mt if the aforementioned Ukrainian figures from 1985 are to be believed, the Kremlin may be worried about maintaining its war machine, let alone reclaiming the USSR’s military might. Afterall, Russia’s production appears to have peaked at 8.1 Mt in 2020, and the country is already struggling with what resources it has. Thus, given the nation’s potential decline in industry and imports, and Bakhmut’s capacity and location, the Kremlin’s best chance for sustaining its necessary salt production, let alone expanding it and rewarding those who remain loyal, may just be the capture of Bakhmut.
In fact, seven days after the research and writing for this article began, a White House official claimed that Prigozhin was attacking Bakhmut for control over its salt and gypsum reserves. For these reasons, it seems unlikely that the conquest of Bakhmut is simply about glory, propaganda, or logistical routes that may be of some use in the future. Furthermore, Prigozhin’s power in Russia was ignored or dismissed before the Kharkiv counter-offensive, and, despite his seemingly meteoric rise as a leader in the war, it remains unlikely that he is attempting to capture the area without Putin’s approval, even if the Wagner leader believes he might control its resources after the war as a reward. Thus, the mineral deposits around Bakhmut are likely the primary driver of the attacks, but the true motivations behind the aggression remain to be seen. As with so much in war, until further evidence emerges, take each claim with a grain of salt.
Grant W. Turner is currently interning with CEPA’s Transatlantic Security and Defense program, is a Research Assistant at The Yorktown Institute, and is pursuing a second master’s degree, an MA in Statecraft and International Affairs at The Institute of World Politics. Grant previously interned full-time at The Jamestown Foundation during 2022, primarily monitoring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and assisting the Eurasia Daily Monitor (EDM) publication. Grant has been published by RUSI, EDM, Global Policy Journal’s Blog, Stealth War, Realist Review, and Plot Politics. His opinions and analyses are his own.
*Notes for Figure 1: a.) Data for Russia’s exports to Ukraine was missing for 2008 and 2009, despite no apparent ban, so values were added via an approximation of the trend line. b.) Additionally, data for imports from Ukraine between 2017 and 2020 appears to be unrealistically low (double digits), with no apparent ban during those years, but no better data or approximation was readily available, so the data was unaltered.
**Notes for Figure 2 and Figure 3: a.) Some USGS data points are estimates while others are reported by the nation. b.) The USGS annual reports include figures for the previous five years, including revisions. For instance, the 2005 report includes figures as far back as 2001, thus the figures in the 2005 report are more accurate than previous reports including data on 2001. For this reason, the chart was constructed using the most up to date information and may not match the numbers of the initial report for a given year. c.) Data beyond 2017 will be subject to revisions in coming years as a result of the aforementioned accounting practice. d.) Data was missing for Ukraine’s production in 2020, so an approximation was made based on context. e.) To calculate exports, imports, and Russia’s Consumption, OEC.World trade values were converted into an estimated metric tonnage (t) using the 2021 value of 1 t of salt ($100.00/t). Consumption was calculated as (Imports + Production – Exports = Consumption). Russia and Ukraine’s Balance of Trade were calculated via a similar conversion (Russia’s Exports to Ukraine – Russia’s Imports from Ukraine).