Bakhmut has become the little town that could. Once considered strategically irrelevant, it has become the epicenter for the war in Ukraine as both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have staked their country’s immediate futures on the outcome of the battle for Bakhmut. As one intelligence officer at the Pentagon stated, “It’s a modern-day version of chicken, with the loser being the first to withdraw their forces.”
Bakhmut is what a “forever war” looks like. Human wave after wave of Russian onslaughts, with Russian mercenaries in the form of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group doing most of the dying. Recently mobilized Russian reservists and conscripts are filling up body bags as well; over 60,000 Russian have been killed since January 1st. Ukraine defenders are absorbing the blows, then launching local counter attacks to regain lost territory. It is a virtual standoff, like in the movie Groundhog Day, being replayed daily with the same results.
The little town that could has now taken on tactical, strategic, and symbolic significance. Determined Ukrainian resistance has seriously eroded the relationship between Prigozhin and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the Russian General Staff General Valery Gerasimov. Prigozhin has complained publicly about the lack of artillery to support his ground assaults, and that his forces are being used to “bear the brunt of the high-intensity attritional urban warfare to seize Bakhmut in order to conserve Russian conventional forces.”
Prior to the release of the video depicting the murder of Oleksandr Matsievsky on March 6th, the Institute for the Study of War concluded that “Ukrainian forces are likely conducting a limited tactical withdrawal.” Many were prepared to underwrite its loss. Even Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin commented that, “If the Ukrainians decide to reposition in some of the terrain that’s west of Bakhmut, I would not view that as an operational or a strategic setback.”
But that was then. Following a meeting with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi yesterday, Zelensky announced that he had ordered reinforcements to Bakhmut and that “there is no part of Ukraine about which one can say that it can be abandoned.”
After bestowing the ‘hero of Ukraine’ honor upon Matsievsky on March 12th, Zelensky stated that “Russian forces will have an “open road” to seize other critical settlements in eastern Ukraine if they capture Bakhmut … they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk.” Zelensky just planted the Ukrainian flag in Bakhmut, echoing the U.S. Army motto “This we’ll defend.”
Furthermore, according to Ukrainian military officials, Russian forces are suffering a seven-to-one casualty ratio compared to Ukrainian forces. As Putin continues to reinforce failure in the Donbas, he accepts risk in Crimea, a ‘red line’ he is certain the U.S. and NATO will not let Zelensky cross. Without the precision deep strike capability afforded by ATACMS and F-16, he may be correct.
All roads appear to lead back to Bakhmut, where undoubtedly many more thousands of soldiers on both sides will lose their lives. As the German Leopard 2 Main Battle Tanks, U.S. Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles, and other military hardware begin to arrive in Ukraine, along with their trained crews, military analysts ponder where the decisive, culminating battles will take place.
A bloodied, demoralized, and poorly led Russian army in Bakhmut could be ripe for the picking.
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Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel, served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. His background includes tours of duty with the 101st Airborne Division and the Intelligence and Security Command. He led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltics. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.
Mark Toth is a retired economist and entrepreneur who has worked in banking, insurance, publishing, and global commerce. He is a former board member of the World Trade Center, St. Louis, and has lived in U.S. diplomatic and military communities around the world, including London, Tel Aviv, Augsburg, and Nagoya. Follow him on Twitter @MCTothSTL.
March 15, 2023 at 8:22 pm
This is not our war and we shouldn’t be defending this corrupt nation’s borders. Our fascist globalist government won’t even protect our borders.
March 16, 2023 at 6:03 am
“Bakhmut Holds” is now my first search every day with my morning coffee. It’s becoming one of my fav “underdog survives against all odds” tales, with its clear cut identification of the Good Guys. Often my next search is looking for indicators that the western allies will start proving enough aide for Ukraine to move past the stalemate, and into a decisive win.
March 16, 2023 at 12:57 pm
“Furthermore, according to Ukrainian military officials, Russian forces are suffering a seven-to-one casualty ratio compared to Ukrainian forces.”
If that is anything close to accurate, it’s time to discard the belief that Russia can eventually win a war of attrition, either in Bakhmut or the whole of Ukraine. Not only are the Russians suffering far heavier losses, a large number of military-age males have fled the country, depriving it of that source of replenishment for its troops. Another round of mobilization will cause even more to leave.
Even worse for Russia, further mobilization will likely just produce warm bodies, not trained soldiers. Russia reportedly threw its training units into the battle when its initial offensive stalled, leaving no one to train the next waves of conscripts. Meanwhile, NATO countries are offering extensive training to Ukraine.
The situation is even worse for military equipment than manpower. Russia has lost or used up much of its advanced weaponry, and is increasingly relying on out-of-date, poorly maintained, Soviet era equipment taken from storage, while Ukraine is in the process of receiving hundreds of tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry fighting vehicles from NATO countries. That uneven matchup may make the Russian casualty figures look a lot worse going forward, and that isn’t sustainable, even for a military that cares little about its own casualties.
March 16, 2023 at 1:54 pm
I was an intelligence officer in the military and clueless as to what was going on 90% of the time. One learns almost nothing from the media as to what the situation is in this city or anything else in this Ukraine conflict. We project our personal ‘wish list’ on to events.
The only certainty is that Russia may not win but with nuclear weapons it can’t lose. Ukraine can lose. There’s a completely and absolute assymetry of potential use of weaponry.
March 17, 2023 at 2:33 pm
One thing that I am convinced, is that there is a massive difference between what is reported in Western (US, EU, and Ukrainian) media as compared to what is reported in Russian media. The truth is someplace in the middle. The truth regardless of the source raises to the surface over time.
Regarding the tactical situation on the ground in that location. The Ukrainian forces are surrounded on three sides, the north, east, and south. Doing a map analysis, there were three major roads from the west into the city that could serve as major supply routes. Two of those roads are not controlled by Russians. As of yesterday, 16 Mar 23, the last road was several hundred meters from being under occupied by the Russian forces. That just leaves unpaved roads and fields that can be used for either withdraw, resupply, or reinforcement and given the winter taw, those roads and the surrounding fields are unpassable. The second complication is that the entire area between the north and south pincer can be targeted by direct and indirect crew served weapon systems. The one advantage the Ukrainians have is the area where their 10,000 soldiers still occupy the city is on higher ground with prepared defensive positions, and there is a river to to the east. The one river that was in the north has been forded by the Russians several weeks ago, and is no longer a terrain feature that can be a combat force multiplier for the Ukrainians.
Within the area surrounding this same city, there are about 20 brigade sized Ukrainian units, totaling about 55 thousand troops, that could be use in a counterattack. But currently due to terrain that is not possible. On the Russian side, the advance has been very slow, but it has been steady, supported by dominating indirect fire. There is no indication that that their rate of advance will slow down. In fact over the last two months it as increased. Proof of that is to take a look at what the Russians and what the Ukrainians controlled say 3 months ago as compared to today and where the gray, zone or the contested area is.
The Ukrainian government has chosen to hold this city at all cost. This is done for political rather then military reasons. Some analysts, believe that Zelensky’s political survival and assistance from the West depends on Ukraine holding this city. I have heard and read such analysis on western and Russian media. The implication is that although operationally it would make more sense for Ukraine to withdraw several months earlier, strategically the decision Ukraine made is to stay and fight.
This is yet another situation where the fog of war reigns, amplified by media, Both Western and Russian are media pushing their narratives, i.e. propaganda. Again, time will tell who was more truthful in their reporting.