Like the city of Stalingrad during World War II, the town of Bakhmut is of moderate tactical significance, as it commands a number of important road junctions in the Donbas and its capture would put other Ukrainian positions at greater risk. Also like Stalingrad, the two sides have placed a great deal of emotional importance to holding or taking the city. The side that emerges from this fight victorious may well also set the stage for winning the war.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky defiantly visited Bakhmut on December 20, 2022, ignoring the dangers of the active combat zone, and declared “Bakhmut fortress” would remain “unconquered by the enemy.” Two days later, the leader of PMC Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, whom Putin had put in charge of capturing Bakhmut, mockingly offered “dear Vladimir Alaxandrovich” to meet in Bakhmut, “if you have not yet left.” The next month, Zelensky returned the favor, mocking Prigozhin for his public disputes with Moscow, claiming the spats were “a clear signal of failure of the enemy.”
Not to be deterred, in early February Prigozhin oddly challenged Zelensky to an aerial duel to settle matters. Meanwhile, on the battlefield both Zelensky’s troops and Prigozhin’s forces continued to pour in massive amounts of troops and reinforcements, each reportedly suffering egregious numbers of casualties. After appearing to be considering withdrawing from Bakhmut on March 3, Prigozhin that same day made a video publicly calling for Zelensky to withdraw. On Monday, Zelensky made his reply, saying he and his senior generals vowed “not to retreat” and in fact to further reinforce his defenders.
The stage appears to be set for a similar battle of wills between Russia and Ukraine over Bakhmut as happened during World War II between Germany and the USSR over Stalingrad.
Ukraine could have withdrawn a month ago, in good military order, to previously prepared defensive positions further to the west, from which they would have been in a stronger and more defensible position. Ironically, though Russia would have had a symbolic victory with the occupation of Bakhmut, their tactical challenge would have increased, as trying to storm Ukraine’s stronger defensive positions to the west would have been far more costly.
But Zelensky has thrown down the gauntlet to Russia by sending in yet more reinforcements, challenging Prigozhin and Putin to see if they are willing and able to continue the assault on the city and to pay the mounting casualty counts. As of now, it is uncertain how this military and personality struggle will eventually play out.
Where Things go from Here
It could be that like Germany in October 1942 came tantalizingly close to achieving their tactical objectives of reaching the Volga River – but failed – the months’ long Russian attack that has Prigozhin’s men literally a few kilometers from completing the ring surrounding Bakhmut (and sealing the fate of the 10,000 Ukrainian defenders), could likewise fail. If that happens, if Ukraine hangs on to the city, they could win a major tactical and psychological victory.
Russia, in that case, will have paid a stunning bill in the loss of thousands of its troops, and yet been unable to wrest it from Ukraine. Such a failure could result in the collapse of Wagner as an effective military force over some period of time, possibly fatally staining Prigozhin’s reputation, and sending a dark, discouraging cloud over the Russian military in the Donbas. Simultaneously, obviously, preventing Russia from capturing Bakhmut would be a major psychological shot-in-the-arm for the entire Ukrainian Armed Forces.
If, on the other hand, Wagner is able to close off the pincers in the coming weeks despite Ukraine’s reinforcements, the loss to Zelensky’s forces could be devastating. Not only would Ukraine have been driven out of the city, they would likely suffer the loss of as many as 10,000 additional troops killed, wounded, or captured. Already Ukraine’s spring or summer offensives have been put at risk, as many of the troops Kyiv had earmarked for use in the north and south have been diverted to hold Bakhmut.
If Zelensky loses too many more troops – whether successful or not in Bakhmut – the striking power of their spring or summer offensive will be materially lower. That is a bigger risk than appears. Ukraine has been building an offensive capacity for months, equipping them with some new NATO kit, training from Western militaries, and keeping them fresh by refusing to send them to fight at the front. If this force is defeated this spring, if they fail to defeat the Russian formations in the Donbas or Zaporizhia directions, there may not be any offensive potential remaining.
One other factor that was decisive in determining the outcome of the battle for Stalingrad was the launch of the massive Soviet offensive of Operation Uranus. Had Stalin not had that force to plow into the flanks of the Germans and eventually cut off their resupply and reinforcements, it is conceivable the Wehrmacht might have held their ground on the western side of Stalingrad for months, possibly launching a new offensive in the spring or summer and punching through to the Volga.
It remains to be seen whether either the Russians or the Ukrainians have the capacity (or intent) to launch a large-scale offensive elsewhere to isolate the opponent’s forces in or near Bakhmut. If one can put the rear area of the other at risk, the city could fall and the loser suffer a major tactical setback.
The thing about waging an attrition battle – with or without a major counterattack – in which one sacrifices large numbers of troops in an effort to bleed their opponent dry, is that it’s a double-edged sword. As is self-evident, Russia has tens of millions more men from which to draw on subsequent rounds of mobilization than Ukraine. There is presently no evidence that the Russian population is close to reaching the point it would turn on the Kremlin, and thus if more troops are needed, Putin appears able to procure them. It is far from certain Kyiv has the capacity to match mobilized troops with Moscow.
Just as the Soviet victory over Hitler’s Germany was still two years away after the USSR’s victory at Stalingrad, this war will also continue after the fate of Bakhmut has been decided. But the cost paid by the losing side could, like the Battle of Stalingrad 80 years ago, tilt the conflict in the victor’s favor, creating a deficit in the ledger of the loser that can never be fully reversed. Only time will tell, but the stakes in the Battle of Bakhmut couldn’t be higher.
Author Biography and Expertise
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.