The Bloody Battle For Bakhmut Offers A Possible Preview Of How Year Two Of The Ukraine War Will Go

The eastern Ukrainian town isn’t strategic, but it hardly matters. As the second year begins of what was predicted to be a days-long conflict, Vladimir Putin keeps throwing Russians into combat there and the Ukrainians keep killing them.

The first sign that Bakhmut would become a disaster for the Russians came nine months ago and 30 miles north of the town in eastern Ukraine.

On May 11, 2022, portions of a Russian motorized rifle brigade — hundreds of vehicles and thousands of troops — tried to ford the Siverskyi Donetsk River in order to extend Russia’s gains in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Ukrainian drones and spotters caught the brigade mid-crossing. The Ukrainians fired volley after volley of heavy artillery into Russian forces packed tread to tread, shoulder to shoulder on the exposed river banks.

By the time the smoke cleared, scores of Russian tanks and fighting vehicles lay smashed among potentially hundreds of dead Russians. “The attempted river crossing showed a stunning lack of tactical sense,” according to The Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C.

The turkey shoot set the stage for Russia’s assault on Bakhmut. Around the same time as the river massacre, tens of thousands of poorly trained, ambivalently led Russians repeatedly charged toward well-prepared Ukrainian positions in and around Bakhmut, a town with a pre-war population of 70,000 that lies 10 miles southwest of Russian-occupied Severodonetsk, one of Donbas’ bigger cities.

Russian losses were so steep — estimates at the time ranged as high as 50,000 killed and wounded — that to replenish its forces, the Kremlin organized an emergency draft, targeting mostly unfit, middle-aged men from regions far outside Moscow. The Kremlin would arm these men with surplus Cold War weaponry and shove them into battle after just a few days of training.

The Russian assault on Bakhmut arguably was the first, and defining, battle of the second phase of the war. The surprise of Russia’s unprovoked attack on February 24, 2022, had worn off. The starving, battered Russian brigades that had tried and failed to surround Kyiv were retreating as increasingly experienced Ukrainian brigades, armed with new Western-made weapons, chased after them.

What was supposed to be a Russian blitz across Ukraine was turning into a bloody slog. A quick war was becoming a war of attrition, where the side that does the most killing stands the greater chance of winning.

Nowhere is this awful calculus more apparent than in Bakhmut. It was obvious as early as last summer, when the scale of Russian losses around the town became evident. It’s even more obvious now, nine months later, as the battle for Bakhmut grinds on, Russian president Vladimir Putin vows to keep fighting, and Ukraine, inspired by the leadership of its own president, the former comic actor Volodymyr Zelensky, shows no sign of backing down.

Why Bakhmut?

Some cities and towns have obvious military value. They might command the high ground or lie astride strategic roads, rail lines or a navigable river. They might be the home of a tank factory or some other vital industry.

Bakhmut doesn’t meet any of these criteria. The closest thing it has to a strategic quality is its proximity to several major roads connecting the free Ukrainian cities in western Donbas. But Bakhmut is no more important as a transportation node than, say, any random town to its northwest.

Why the Russians targeted Bakhmut might have less to do with military strategy than political strategy. For its first few months, the Bakhmut operation was the main task of The Wagner Group, a shadowy mercenary company allegedly financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a former sausage vendor and a Putin favorite.

The Wagner Group works with the Russian military, but it’s not part of the Russian military. In many ways, it’s the army’s biggest rival for resources in Moscow.

Analysts have concluded that the Wagner assaults on Bakhmut were the company’s way of creating a narrative that it was the only Russian force still capable of beating the Ukrainians.

The idea, apparently, was for Wagner to parlay its battlefield reputation into political influence in Moscow. Prigozhin “continues to accrue power and is setting up a military structure parallel to the Russian armed forces,” ISW explained.

But as a political gambit, Bakhmut was a bust.

Human Waves

To sustain its assault on Bakhmut, Wagner hired thousands of Russian veterans, even recruiting one daredevil pilot who got drummed out of the Russian air force in 2012 for stealing and crashing a Sukhoi Su-27 fighter.

The company’s hiring spree gave it a small advantage over the battered Russian army, at least for a little while. The same advantage never extended to its operations against the Ukrainian army. To defend Bakhmut, the Ukrainian general command rotated in some of its best brigades — including, late last year, the 93rd Mechanized Brigade.

The 93rd isn’t the flashiest of Ukraine’s dozens of front-line brigades, but it’s one of the most brutally effective. The brigade, with its five tank and infantry battalions — altogether, several thousand troops and a hundred or more armored vehicles, including upgraded T-64 tanks — had endured some of the bloodiest battles of the wider war.

The 93rd and other Ukrainian brigades, supported by the big guns of the powerful 40th Artillery Brigade, fought what U.S. Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, described as “a very, very successful mobile defense.”

Instead of stubbornly holding every trench, bunker or basement until they’re overrun, the Ukrainians pull back when they’re in danger of defeat. They rest and rearm, then counterattack once the Russians overextend themselves.

This flexibility preserves Ukraine’s fighting force, but it requires patience and teamwork. Some days, it might feel like the Ukrainians are losing around Bakhmut, but only because they’ve decided to trade space for time.

Wait a few days, and the Ukrainians not only tend to regain any ground they recently lost, they might even start marching forward. As long as senior commanders understand that one day’s retreat is the price the front-line brigades pay for the next day’s advance, the mobile defense is a long-term winner against a short-sighted foe.

Ukrainian commanders clearly hold the long view. The contrast with Russian commanders around Bakhmut couldn’t be more stark. Wagner officers repeatedly hurled their best troops against Ukrainian positions.

Losses were steep. By last fall, Wagner was badly in need of fresh forces. The Russian army had just rounded up 300,000 men in a desperate bid to make good its own losses. Equally desperate for warm bodies, Wagner tapped a surprising source: Russia’s prisons.

Company representatives offered convicts pardons in exchange for a few months of front-line service. It was an enticing offer at first. Wagner quickly mobilized 40,000 ex-prisoners to bolster its 10,000 professional fighters around Bakhmut.

Rushed to the front with virtually no preparation, these former convicts were, in essence, cannon fodder. They allowed Wagner to maintain the pace of its attacks on Ukrainian defenses, but they didn’t stand much chance of breaking through and ending the battle on Russia’s terms. “Their tactic is to send people to die,” Oleksandr Pohrebyskyy, a sergeant in the Ukrainian 46th Air Mobile Brigade, told Ukrainian Pravda.

Wagner’s forces managed to advance into Bakhmut’s outskirts, but only briefly. Urban combat requires “highly trained infantry with excellent junior-level leadership,” the U.K. Defense Ministry said.

Ukraine’s brigades have highly trained infantry, thanks in part to NATO instructors. They have good junior leaders, too, owing to a military culture that distributes responsibility to younger officers and sergeants rather than solely assigning it to aging colonels and generals, as is the Russian custom.

By now, even Ukraine’s territorial troops — the equivalent of U.S. Army National Guardsmen — are battle-hardened and effective. One of the best territorial brigades, the 241st, defended Bakhmut during a critical stage of the long battle late last year.

As the Bakhmut campaign ground into its seventh month in December, the Ukrainians had the advantage. “This type of combat is unlikely to favor poorly trained Wagner fighters,” the U.K. Defense Ministry said.

On December 21, Zelensky visited the Bakhmut front lines. “The Russian military and mercenaries have been attacking Bakhmut nonstop since May,” he said. “They have been attacking it day and night, but Bakhmut stands.”

At least 4,000 Wagner fighters died around Bakhmut in 2022, according to The Guardian. By early 2023, word had spread to Russia’s prisons. Volunteers were fewer and fewer until, on February 9, Prigozhin announced Wagner would no longer recruit convicts. In truth, the convicts had cut him off.

The Year Ahead

Deprived of its main source of fresh manpower, Wagner could no longer sustain the assault on Bakhmut. Gradually, over a period of several weeks early this year, regular Russian troops, including well-trained paratroopers, replaced the mercenaries fighting there.

The gradual swap “retained the initiative for Russian operations around the city,” ISW said. In the closest thing to a breakthrough that the Kremlin’s forces had achieved around Bakhmut in eight months of relentless and costly fighting, Russian troops on January 12 captured Soledar, a small settlement that sits atop labyrinthine salt mines just north of Bakhmut.

The capitulation of Soledar didn’t mean Bakhmut was in imminent danger of falling, too. “The capture of the center and most of Soledar by Wagner units is an undoubted tactical success,” wrote Igor Girkin, a former Russian army officer who played a key role in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. “However, the enemy’s front was not broken through. … The enemy command definitely controls the situation.”

That was still true weeks later. ISW “does not forecast the imminent fall of Bakhmut to Russian forces,” the think tank wrote.

If the Russians do end up capturing Bakhmut, it could be because the Ukrainian general staff finally decided to trade the town for time. “The Ukrainian command may choose to withdraw rather than risk unacceptable losses,” ISW said.

Bakhmut itself was never worth all that much to Kyiv, especially as civilians have all but abandoned it. Its main value has been as an opportunity — an opportunity to kill Russians.

The Ukrainians have seized that chance, and the Russians obliged, just like they did at the Siverskyi Donetsk River last May. Week after week, month after month, the Russians have stormed Bakhmut with masses of under-trained troops. The Ukrainians have killed them by the hundreds.

At best during the long campaign, Wagner troops advanced 300 feet per day, Prigozhin estimated. In nine months, they may have marched 15 miles closer to Bakhmut. Each mile, however, is paved with several hundred dead Russians.

Denis Pushilin, the head of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Donbas, claimed that a Russian victory in Bakhmut would clear a path to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, 25 miles northwest of Bakhmut.

Maybe. Or maybe the Ukrainians pull back from Bakhmut so they can reorganize and launch a counterattack that recaptures the town. “The situation can change in half a day,” said Pohrebyskyy, the Ukrainian sergeant.

Pushilin’s expectations for a theoretical Bakhmut breakthrough “further demonstrate that Russians are continuing to face challenges in accurately assessing the time and space relationship” when it comes to Russian military capabilities, ISW said.

A year ago, the Kremlin hoped to capture Kyiv and topple the Ukrainian government in a few days. Three hundred and sixty-five days later, after losing as many as 270,000 killed and wounded in Ukraine, the Kremlin struggles to capture one lifeless, non-strategic town. But it keeps trying.

Bakhmut is a symbol of the bloody struggle — and a possible harbinger of the next year of hard fighting.


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