Bakhmut: Russia is on the brink of capturing Ukrainian city. But a win could come at a heavy cost



For the first time in eight months, the Russians are on the verge of taking over a Ukrainian city, although the small town has already been abandoned by more than 90% of its population.

Ukrainian defenses in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut are being squeezed by a combination of intense artillery, mortar fire, and airstrikes and a substantial commitment of ground forces, Russian regulars, and fighters from the Wagner Private Military Company.

If and when Bakhmut falls, one might be tempted to ask whether Russian forces are improving, learning from the catalog of mistakes they’ve made so far in this conflict and ultimately their superiority in numbers and firepower. are exploiting

Answer: Probably not.

Mick Ryan, a former Australian general and author of the WarInTheFuture newsletter, says, “The Ukrainian armed forces may decide that they have gained all they can by staying in their defensive positions around Bakhmut, and from that Security of force is more important for subsequent battles.”

But a Ukrainian return does not equal disaster if done in an orderly manner. “This should be treated as a routine strategy rather than a harbinger of disaster,” says Ryan.

The Ukrainians used bakhmut to inflict heavy damage on the attacking force: by a ratio of 7:1 by some estimates. There comes a moment when it is smarter to retreat than to damage morale given the mounting casualties and the surrender of hundreds and perhaps thousands of beleaguered Ukrainian soldiers.

It is important for Ukrainians to judge that moment.

But for the Russians, taking Bakhmut would not change the fundamental flaws in their campaign.

The Battle of Bakhmut suggests to some extent that the Russians are changing the way they wage war, or at least trying to do so.

They still rely on heavy barrages of indirect fire (artillery and howitzers, rockets, aerial bombardment) to overcome defensive positions. Last year, the move was carried out in the cities of Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. In short: leave nothing standing that can be defended.

To recall the words of Stalin-era Marshal Georgy Zhukov, “The longer the war goes on, the more force we have to use.”

But such continuous fire calls for an efficient logistics chain. Russian forces are still struggling on this count.

Sure enough, last year in Mariupol and other cities the end game finally involved men moving up the street. But they were rarely Russian regulars, mostly Chechen units, militias from the self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk republics, and a small number of Wagner operatives.

And often they were moving into already abandoned territory.

The campaign to take Soledar and now nearby Bakhmut in January followed from the same playbook but with one important and terrifying exception: waves of infantry recruited by Yevgeny Prigogine’s Wagner Group were sent to flood the Ukrainian defenses.

Prigogine has acted unilaterally to embarrass the Russian military and burnish his reputation. Wagner fighters captured by the Ukrainians told CNN that they had no contact with regular Russian forces, except for artillery support, as they were sent into the Ukrainian line of fire by the hundreds and thousands.

Prigozhin had boasted last week that if Wagner left Bakhmut, the front would collapse.

There are also indications that the Russians used more infantry in their failed attempt to advance into Vuhledar, with heavy losses.

It’s as if the Russians are moving forward rather than adding a new dimension to their order of battle: overwhelm Ukrainian defenses with wave after wave of cannon fodder – and an 80% casualty rate in the process. accept the

Such a devastating casualty rate is unsustainable with front lines spanning thousands of kilometers. To some analystsSuch losses mean “the conditions are already in place for a large-scale Russian military coup.”

Beyond any strategic rationale, Bakhmut has become an obsession for the Russians in the absence of progress elsewhere. Concerned that Prigogine was taking bouquets when it was brick-and-mortar, the Russian Ministry of Defense began to increase forces in the area.

But the focus on Bakhmut may have come at the expense of Russian actions elsewhere. Rather than a victory for the Russian generalship, the grinding campaign to take Bakhmut, which had been attacked some 10 months earlier, reflected the desperate need for a “victory” – any victory – regardless of the wider battlefield. is

This may explain why Ukrainian forces have been ordered to hold the line. Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in Ukraine’s National Guard, said last week that the Russians “don’t take into account their losses in trying to capture the city by attack. Damage is to be inflicted. Every meter of Ukrainian land costs the enemy hundreds of lives.”

Ukrainian soldiers fire a 105mm howitzer at Russian positions near the city of Bakhmut on March 4, 2023.

Ukrainian service members board a tank outside Bakhmut on March 4, 2023.

Russia’s mobilization last fall, enlisting some 300,000 men in uniform, provided a pool of foot soldiers and helped reorganize units that had suffered heavy losses. At the same time, Prigozhin was scouring Russian prisons and turning his Wagner troops into expeditionary shock troops.

Ukrainian commanders knew they would soon face another attack.

But according to the Modern War Institute at West Point, “Russia has been unable to demonstrate that it can effectively integrate new forces into damaged formations or create cohesive teams from ad hoc groups of scattered unit remnants. .”

Russia is now “suffering from a severe battlefield leadership deficit while trying to fight a costly, protracted conflict with a pickup squad of replacements,” The institute evaluates.

But there are other systemic issues.

The Ukraine conflict has seen Russian forces gradually try to move away from reliance on battalion tactical groups (BTGs), a combined arms formation that has proven vulnerable to the Ukrainian conflict. Their Achilles heel: lack of infantry and reconnaissance.

The lack of everyone within the BTGs in the advance to Kiev a year earlier was one of the reasons the campaign stalled and failed. Russian forces were too weak to attack.

This vulnerability is exacerbated by a cultural culture that values ​​obedience over initiative.

In the words of a recent study by European Council on Foreign Relations“The inadequate training and incompetence of Russian military personnel – combined with the strict chain of command in which they operated, which left officers unable to act on their own initiative – meant that they advanced deep into enemy territory. were unable to coordinate.”

As Rob Johnson wrote in the US Army War College Quarterly: “Basic combat skills (such as alertness, logistical management, and moving into the field strategically to avoid casualties) were poor, and evidence of a significant lack of discipline suggests.”

Such deficiencies do not heal overnight. And rebuilding structures and structures in the middle of fighting a war is not ideal, but even less so when there is a shortage of competent mid-level commanders. The loss of a colonel and lieutenant colonel adds to Russian woes.

A Ukrainian APC moves towards frontline positions near Bakhmut on Saturday, March 4.

Soldiers of the Ukrainian Assault Brigade enter a command bunker as they await orders to fire a British-made L118 105mm howitzer at a Russian trench near Bakhmut on March 4, 2023.

The Modern War Institute says that Russia has “responded to the battlefield conflicts in Ukraine by reverting to its old model of fielding a large conscript force.” “In some ways it reflects the tension between Russia’s pursuit of a technologically advanced method of warfare and its long-standing bias for simple, rigid mass.”

That hardened mass has certainly taken a heavy toll on Ukrainian units over the past few months, and some Ukrainian commanders have questioned the wisdom of sticking with both Soledar and Bakhmut.

But even if the Russian flag is raised over the ruins of Bakhmut, it may be a pyrrhic victory.

As Mick Ryan writes: “If the Russians capture Bakhmut, they are seizing the wreckage. It is a city of minimal strategic importance, with almost no infrastructure to support an occupying force. That the Russians have invested so much in its capture speaks to their poor strategy in this war. ”

On top of that, they have exhausted the men and materials that were badly needed when the Ukrainians retaliated in the coming months.

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