Like Stalingrad 80 Years Ago, the Battle of Bakhmut Could Ultimately Determine the War’s Winner I remember when I visited the site of the battle of Stalingrad (today known as Volgograd) in 2008 I was struck by the enormity of the resources and the massive number of troops poured into the battle by both sides, especially given the city had only marginal strategic significance. Hitler’s and Stalin’s obsession with capturing or defending the city defied military utility.
Towards the end of last week it appeared the end-game had been reached and Ukraine would withdraw its remaining troops from Bakhmut. But on Monday, Zelensky, along with his top two generals, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny and Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, announced that instead of abandoning Bakhmut, they will reinforce it and seek to drive Russia out of the city.
Meanwhile, the feud that has been unfolding between the leader of PMC Wagner and the Russian Ministry of Defense has added another twist, as Yevgeny Prigozhin declared that unless Moscow supported him with reinforcements and ammunition, Zelensky’s counterattack might succeed. The fighting for the city has escalated into the most brutal, cruel fighting of the entire war, being described by both Ukrainian and Russian supporters as a “meat grinder.”
The city by itself does not represent anything more or less important than other cities that have been captured or lost during the war, such as Lysychansk, Severodonetsk, Mariupol, Kherson, or more recently Soledar. Yet for reasons known fully only to themselves, both Zelensky and Putin have placed outsized importance on Bakhmut.
As a result, Russia has been willing to endure enormous casualties to capture the city, and Ukraine has continued pouring a steady stream of reinforcements – most of whom have been chewed up in the battle – to defend it. Though the scale of the conflicts aren’t the same, the concepts behind today’s 2022-23 Bakhmut battle and the 1942-43 battle for Stalingrad have some remarkable similarities – and some key differences. It is possible that just as the victor in Stalingrad signaled the winner of World War II, the victor in this battle may also have similar ramifications for today’s winner.
The city of 400,000 was of moderate importance to the Nazis, as it was an industrial hub in that part of Russia and also served as a shipping route on the Volga River. But Hitler made it more personal, as the city was the namesake for his hated Soviet rival, and Hitler wanted to add insult to Stalin above merely taking the city. The Soviet leader, conversely, felt it important to hold the city bearing his name, not wanting to see Hitler gloat over its capture.
By August 1942, the German Wehrmacht had been fighting in the Soviet Union more than a year and had destroyed entire battalions of the Red Army, and appeared poised to capture Stalingrad. Any urban center is going to require massive amounts of artillery, air power, and infantrymen to both capture and defend. The Soviets and Germans poured enormous amounts of men into the fight for Stalingrad. Some researchers claim the battle of Stalingrad included a total, on all sides, of nearly 4 million troops.
At first the Germans made methodical progress in the city, with the objective of breaking through the Red Army’s defenses in the city to reach the Volga River and destroy the USSR’s ability to supply their defenders. In mid-October, Nazi troops momentarily broke through the last Russian line and held ground on the river bank. A Soviet counterattack, however, pushed the Germans back to their previous lines. It was as close as the Wehrmacht troops would ever get.
It was at this point that the enormous casualties suffered by the Germans became apparent. From this point forward, they no longer had the capacity to launch massive human waves of infantrymen against the Russians, having to use “reconnaissance in force” tactics, which included many fewer troops. The Russians were able to prevent any further breakthroughs.
The Germans, however, were still strong enough to generally hold their positions, and the Russians were unable to dislodge them to force them out of the city. After three months of fighting, the Red Army launched a surprise counterattack in November made up of more than half a million men, striking the German army’s rear support areas.
German commander Gen. Friedrich Paulus requested permission from Hitler to withdraw from the attack to more defensible terrain. Hitler refused. In fact, the Nazi leader put in place a “no withdrawal” policy that forbade any repositioning backward for his forces, regardless of military necessity. One month before the battle of Stalingrad had begun, Stalin had issued his infamous “not one step back” order to his forces that denied any withdrawal by his troops. The two leaders’ intransigence set the stage for perhaps the largest battle of attrition in modern history: neither was willing to give an inch.
But something had to give.
As it turned out, the German side started having more and more difficulty getting supplies to the front owing to the massively extended lines of logistics, the growing casualty count of their infantrymen, and the increased pressure of the USSR’s massive counterattack. Gen. Paulus requested one last time in January 1943 from Hitler for permission to withdraw before his forces were completely surrounded by the Soviet troops. Hitler refused. The next month the Soviets closed the ring around the Germans, capturing or destroying the entire German battle force.
The Germans and their allies suffered a staggering one million casualties throughout the five month battle, while the USSR suffered over a million military and civilian casualties of their own. As of early 1943, the battle might have appeared a draw. But the USSR had considerably more males in their population from which to draw more troops than the Germans, and along with help from allies, their military-industrial capacity began to crank out armaments and ammunition to levels the Germans could no longer match. Though the war would rage another two full years, the balance had been irretrievably tilted in Moscow’s favor as a result of their victory in Stalingrad.
Stalingrad Meets Bakhmut
There are a number of similarities between what happened in 1943 in Stalingrad and what is happening in early 2023 in Bakhmut. Both sides have placed enormous emotional value on either holding or taking the city, and both have sacrificed enormous casualties in the pursuit of victory. If the Ukrainians spend too many troops in a vain attempt to hold Bakhmut or if Russia loses too many men in a vain attempt to capture the city, the side that fails could end up losing the war as well. The next edition of this short series will examine the factors involved on each side.
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Author Expertise and Military Experience
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.