A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 21, 2022

As Ukraine's Bakhmut Situation Improves, Its Encirclement of Kreminna Tightens

It is increasingly clear that Ukraine's position in Bakhmut has improved dramatically in the last two weeks. President Zelensky would probably not have visited the city's defenders if that were not the case. 

Fresh forces transferred from the now relatively quiet Kherson front helped make the difference - as did the scale of Russian losses. And in other key Donbas front, Ukrainian troops continue to make incremental progress as they await a harder ground freeze before attempting their next offensive. JL  

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Since the Wagner group forces were pushed from the garage dump and sent fleeing, there have been reports that the rate of Russian artillery fire in Bakhmut has been slowing.  Front-line sources are reporting that there are fewer Russian shots incoming than there were in weeks past. In Kreminna, Ukraine is advancing. Forces are east of the P66 highway north of Kreminna, fighting along the entrenched hillside that leads up to Holykove. Ukraine continues to press Russian forces in Kreminna from both the south and west.The women and men who have defended Bakhmut so valiantly over the last six months as Russia has hurled tens of thousands of troops and innumerable artillery shells against the city have already earned a place in the history books. On Tuesday morning, those beleaguered, long-suffering forces had an unusual visitor: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. One of the first things that the troops had to say to the visiting president was something that should make every American both proud and determined.

Ukrainian soldier: “The soldiers who are here today have written the most beautiful words for our comrades from America. Please give them this flag and our thanks.”

Zelenskyy: “For the weapons?”

Soldier: “Yes. For the weapons.”

Zelenskyy: “We will give them everything.”

It’s a reminder that if not for the assistance the U.S. has provided, Bakhmut would now be occupied by Russia, perhaps along with the rest of Donetsk. Also a reminder that if that assistance falters, disaster won’t be far behind.

No one is quite sure about the meaning of the name “Bakhmut.” It’s an old name, almost certainly dating to before the 15th century, when the place was an outpost in lands that had been part of an expansive Turkish empire. It may simply be a corruption of the old Tatar word for Mohammed. But I’d like to think it comes from the Arabic name “Bahamut.” In folklore, Bahamut is a vast being who serves as a base for the whole world. Considering the burden the city has shouldered over the last six months, that sounds about right.

In ages past, it wasn’t unusual to see leaders at the head of a battle, but those ages are long past. While Zelenskyy isn’t quite climbing into his own tank and leading the charge across the no man’s land east of the city, his presence in Bakhmut today may be even more vital to maintaining the powerful bond between Ukraine’s leadership and Ukraine’s front-line forces than his rapid appearance in Izyum and Kherson. Pro-Russian military analysts have rushed to their keyboards this morning to state that since they can’t hear explosions in the background, Zelenskyy can’t really be in Bakhmut. Those analysts are dead wrong. They’re also not listening very closely.

What does courage look like? It looks like those defenders who have help Bakhmut against wave after wave after wave of Russian assault. Held in spite of constant artillery barrages. Held even though every building is rubble and every tree is splintered.

And Zelenskyy? That’s also courage. He may not be personally inspecting the trenches (though hell, considering everything else he’s done, he might do that), but he certainly knows that he is in danger every day. This guy … it’s going to take better historians than me to find the right terms.

In other Bakhmut news today, there are competing narratives. Pro-Russian bloggers and Telegram channels are showing a video of a line of fires in a snowy location that they claim is a Ukrainian military convoy destroyed by Russian artillery fire as it attempted to move east from Bakhmut. To be honest, I can’t make out enough in any of these videos to tell what I’m looking at. There are fires and smoke, but there are also vehicles moving smoothly along what appears to be a highway. There’s a snow-covered field, but other videos of Bakhmut today show no such snow. Is this something that happened a week ago? Is it something that happened at all? I can’t tell.

The other narrative is the one of “declining artillery fire.” For the last few days, since the Wagner group forces were pushed from their appropriate home in the garage dump and sent fleeing back down the street, there have been reports that the rate of Russian artillery fire in Bakhmut has been slowing. It’s not stopping—listening in on any video or audio from the front lines is enough to show that the impact of shells is still all but continuous—but front-line sources are reporting that there are fewer Russian shots incoming than there were in weeks past.

Optimists are interpreting this as Russia running low on shells. That idea has already entered conventional wisdom among pundits to the point where people are dreaming up Things That Ukraine Can Do Now That Russia Is Out of Artillery. 

It’s true enough that by now Russia has fired literally millions of shells, and not even the stockpiles built up over decades of Cold War paranoia are likely to be endless. If Russia’s rate of fire exceeds its rate of new shell production (and it does), then stockpiles are going to erode. It probably doesn’t help that Ukraine has blown up dozens of ammunition warehouses and captured dozens more in some of their rapid advances.

However, there are a lot of other potential causes for a short-term slowing of artillery fire near Bakhmut. Maybe they’re moving equipment around. Maybe they’re changing out overworked barrels. Maybe Wagner has decided it would be better to have their prison recruits hand-carry those shells.

Maybe Russia is running low. Hopefully Russia is running low. As kos has noted, Russia’s war effort seems to be fading in almost every direction. But no one should be counting on Russia running dry just yet.

In addition to continuing a multidirectional push for Kreminna itself, Ukraine is reportedly engaged in a Tuesday advance toward the town of Holykove. Forces are reportedly east of the P66 highway north of Kreminna, fighting along the entrenched hillside that leads up to Holykove.

Ukrainian forces move to liberate Holykove. Open in another tab for a larger view.

Holykove has a position that allows Russian artillery to retain fire control over the P66, disrupting Ukrainian attempts to bring forces down from the crossing near Ploshchanka. If Holykove can be cleared, Ukrainian positions at Chervonopopivka will be much better positioned to receive additional forces and supplies for a movement south.

There were multiple reports like the one above over the weekend, indicating that Russian forces in Zhytlivka were retreating south and that Ukrainian forces were expected to occupy that location. However there’s been no subsequent update on positions in this area. Ukraine continues to press Russian forces in Kreminna from both the south and west.


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