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.