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Fortress Bakhmut: What Happens in the Ukraine War When the City Falls?

T-90 tank in the snow. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

The City’s Fall Will Not Change the Course of the War: After seven months of ferocious combat, Bakhmut’s fall finally appears imminent. The city is strategically consequential. However, the predictable post-combat deluge of Western hand-wringing, alongside Russian propaganda, misses the actual combat dynamics of the war.  Western audiences would do well to remember that this war remains one of movement, not of attrition.  All the relevant advantages remain with Ukraine – it is the West’s task to amplify them and ensure Ukraine can push on to a battlefield victory, and only then generate a reasonable political settlement that secures the European peace for another decade.

The Ukraine War appears to have settled into an attritional rhythm.  Since Ukraine drove Russia from the Dnieper’s right bank and recaptured Kherson in November, the front line has moved little. However, a static phase does not necessarily indicate an attritional war – a war in which the destruction of enemy forces and materiel over time is the primary goal.  Indeed, very few wars are attritional: even the Great War, often viewed as the prime example of attritional combat, was only so for around a year.  In fact, the defining factor of modern combat remains an operational breakthrough, exploited by fast-moving armored forces that penetrates into the adversary’s rear areas.  From the Great War onwards, every major conventional conflict has been concluded with some sort of breakthrough, even if, as in Korea, political restrictions meant that it took years for a breakthrough to translate into a formal political settlement.

Since the Kherson Offensive, both Russia and Ukraine have sought to shape the battlefield. Ukraine has pursued a consistent strategy. It still seeks another phase of operational movement, akin to the Kharkiv Offensive in September, where it penetrated well into the Russian line and forced a withdrawal.  However, Russia’s only strategically adept move of this war was its reconstitution after Kherson.  Sergey Surovikin, formerly the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, shortened the active front line by a third.  This allowed him to thicken it with rotated forces from southern Ukraine and new soldiers from Russia’s mobilization waves.  Hence Ukraine now faces a more concentrated Russian defense, a tactical reality that makes a breakthrough costly. Ukraine’s key decision, from which every other aspect of its current war planning flows, is when and where to mass and strike for a successful breakthrough.  If Ukraine can breach the Russian line and swarm follow-on forces into the gap, even if only a handful of brigades, it can wreak havoc in the Russian rear and jeopardize Russian supply lines.

Russia, meanwhile, has not demonstrated the command-and-control system or operational competence to stage a riposte against a successfully staged Ukrainian offensive at any point in this war.  Hence Russia’s objective is to prevent a breakthrough at all costs.

Until January 2023, under Surovikin’s command, Russia assumed the strategic and operational defensive.  It probed the Ukrainian line, but Russia was content to bombard Ukrainian infrastructure, mitigate casualties and ammunition expenditure, and overall await Ukrainian action.  This approach carried risks. It largely ceded the initiative to the enemy. But the strategic strike campaign pulled Ukrainian ground-based air defenses away from the front line, reducing the odds of an immediate Ukrainian offensive after Kherson.  During an unusually warm December and January, Russia could take the time to reconstitute and prepare for a Ukrainian push in the spring.

Sergei Surovikin, however, was relieved for reasons unknown.  Speculation abounds, from political infighting within the Kremlin to strategic disagreements between Surovikin and Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s Chief of General Staff and Surovikin’s military superior.  Regardless, Gerasimov’s assignment to direct the Ukraine War indicated a shift in Russian strategy.  Russia would attack with whatever means it had at its disposal.

The ongoing Russian offensive, if analyzed charitably, has two purposes.  First, it seeks to gain specific locations that enable a long-term defense.  This explains Russia’s pressure against Orikhiv and Vuhledar, on both sides of the Zaporizhzhia Line.  Driving Ukraine back some ten to fifteen kilometers provides Russia with more defensible terrain and a better launch-point for future attacks. 

Bakhmut figures prominently in this logic. It is the centerpiece of Ukraine’s current defensive belt in the Donbas. If captured, Ukraine will need to withdraw farther west – not an insurmountable defeat, nor one likely to change the tempo of the war, but a reversal nonetheless.  Second, Russia hopes to force Ukraine to commit reserves to holding the entire front line.  By applying pressure everywhere, it can disperse the forces Ukraine needs to stage a breakthrough operation and exploit it later this year.  Assaults on Bakhmut again are crucial to this approach. Holding Bakhmut has cost Ukraine significant manpower, meaning the longer Ukraine commits to holding the city, and Siversk to the north of it, the harder it becomes for Ukraine to accumulate reserves.

The issue with Russia’s approach is that Ukraine has, despite breathless Western reporting to the contrary, countered it rather well.  Ukraine has continued its deep strike campaign into the Russian rear, hitting ammunition depots and command and control nodes with Western-provided rocket artillery.  It has also brought several its traditional mechanized brigades off-line, rotating in National Guard and Territorial Defense Force (TDF) units.  The Ukrainian National Guard and TDF are not well equipped for mechanized maneuver warfare.  But many of the soldiers in these units saw combat during the 2014-2022 Donbas War, giving them extensive experience in trench warfare and urban defense.  These soldiers, then, with artillery support, are precisely the units needed to confront Russia in grinding close combat.

Russian forces have reportedly blown the final major bridge connecting Bakhmut to Chasiv Yar southwest of it, and at minimum have fire control over part of the M03 road to Slovyansk.  Hence Ukraine must exit Bakhmut, just as it withdrew from Severodonetsk and Lysychansk this past summer.  Contrary to Russian propaganda, there are not likely to be tens of thousands of maneuver units left in the city, but several thousand light infantry.  And Ukraine has demonstrated its ability to break contact and withdraw in the past, particularly in the Donbas.

Russia, meanwhile, will face another fortified line along the ridges between Bakhmut and Slovyansk, as well as the urban areas of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, cities with a pre-war population of just under 300,000 combined.  Breaking this line will again require another long, grinding offensive.  Hence Russia is likely to be exhausted after capturing Bakhmut and, despite forcing Ukraine to withdraw several kilometers west, incapable of generating the forces needed for a rapid armored breakthrough.

The West’s single most important task is to see the war with clarity.  Ukraine’s offensive is coming. The Ukrainian military has no operational need to force the issue. The March thaw now impends, and with it the rasputitsa, Ukraine’s famed muddy season, during which dismounted light infantry are favored over tanks and armored vehicles, and artillery exchanges are more feasible than armored breakthroughs.  Ukraine has one shot at a momentum-shifting offensive once again and has no incentive to begin that offensive before the spring thaw has ended, the ground has dried out, and it has Western equipment and ammunition in reserve to back-fill its losses.  Patience is, in this case, a strategic virtue.

In turn, the West must keep its equipment deliveries coming apace.  Tanks and armored vehicles are critical, along with ammunition plentiful enough to support and offensive and ground-based air defense systems to protect Ukraine’s cities and free up mobile anti-air units to support armored spearheads.

War does not abide by a consistent rhythm. But it does contain a strategic logic, identifiable to the observer. Every sign points to Ukrainian success – if the West does not crack.

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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness. This first appeared in RealClearDefense

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Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy Undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of Mayday and Seablindness.