A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jan 18, 2023

How Bakhmut/Soledar and Kreminna/Svatove Reveal Key Differences In Ukraine vs Russia Strategies

Putin is desperate to display anything other than the humiliation and defeat his forces have suffered after a year of war that he started. His heedless approach to Soledar reflects that. 

Zelensky can afford to be more strategic, taking the time to identify the best targets for a next offensive while continuing to bleed the Russians of men and materiel. Ukraine's methodical approaches to Kreminna and Svatove which, when liberated, open the way to the rest of Luhansk and Donetsk, reveals a patient, longer term strategy which has gotten Ukraine the success it now enjoys. JL

Mick Ryan reports in War In the Future:

Putin's military has not been able to achieve his political objectives. Before the one-year anniversary of his Ukraine invasion Putin needs something he can portray as worth its costs. Securing Bakhmut and Soledar, of limited strategic utility, fits this (need) though the massive Russian losses suffered are not justified by the minor gains they present. Zelenskyy is not desperate for a victory at any cost. His forces ended 2022 in the ascendancy. They achieved significant battlefield victories. They have momentum. He can be patient and carefully plan the military strategy for 2023. (But) he still needs more battlefield victories - and Western support - to recapture Ukrainian regions.

Over the northern hemisphere winter, eastern Ukraine has been the scene of bitter and intense combat.

The Russians — seeking to control all of the territory it annexed in the Donetsk oblast — have launched a series of assaults on a line of objectives, including the towns of Bakhmut and Soledar.

To the north, the Ukrainians have sought to exploit the successes of their recent Kharkiv offensive by a methodical advance on a triangular region bounded by Kreminna in the south, Svatove in the north and Starobilsk in the east.

Both of these offensives have featured trench and urban warfare, artillery duels, very short-range engagements between infantry and tanks, as well as long-range strikes on supply and headquarters locations.

It is the kind of methodical, high-casualty warfare that many analysts had hoped was consigned to the past.

These two offensives, beyond their tactical implications, highlight the different strategic and cultural approaches that Ukraine and Russia have applied in this war.

Two nations, two approaches

One of the key differences is an asymmetry between Russian and Ukrainian operational thinking. For the Russian offensive, there has been a singular focus on securing towns like Bakhmut and Soledar that have limited strategic utility.

In the main, the massive Russian losses suffered for these towns are not justified by the minor gains they present. This is indicative of a Russian military institution that cares little for its people.

Large flames in bush scrub behind a field gun and a person in army colours
Ukrainian soldiers fire towards a Russian offensive near Soledar in the Donetsk region in November.(Reuters: Iryna Rybakova/Ukrainian Armed Forces)

The fight in the north waged by the Ukrainians is quite different. The Kreminna-Svatove-Starobilsk region is important for its transportation hubs.

If Russia loses these cities, it loses its key supply routes into Luhansk and many of the northern routes into Donetsk. The ultimate outcome of Ukrainian success may see it recapture its Luhansk oblast and compromise the Russian scheme of defence in northern Donetsk.

This would mean the Russians may have to redeploy forces intended for 2023 offensives to defend the region.


Related to this dissimilar operational thinking is that the Russians have chosen to attack an area where the Ukrainians are strongest. The Donbas — which the Ukrainians called their Joint Force Operation until the start of this war — is where Ukraine has had eight years to prepare multiple, reinforcing defensive lines. Attacking areas where the enemy is strongest and best prepared is generally not recommended in war.

The Ukrainians, on the other hand, conducted a rapid advance through Kharkiv and into Luhansk at the end of 2023 because they had identified an area where Russia was weak. They were able to quickly recapture large portions of their territory in north-eastern Ukraine, and posture themselves for the current, more methodical operations.

Who's fighting?

Another important difference highlighted by these two offensives is the kinds of forces being used. For Ukraine, this is an operation being conducted by professional and territorial military personnel and overseen by a single, unified Western command.

The Russians have taken a different approach. The battles around Bakhmut, Soledar and surrounding areas are being fought by a mix of competing Russian army forces and mercenaries.

Two people walk past a fence, above it smoke billows out from a building that has been struck by a missile
The town of Bakhmut has come under intense Russian shelling. (Reuters: Clodagh Kilcoyne)

This is perhaps best exemplified by the claims by Wager's head, Yevgeny Progozhin, of victory in Soledar over the past weekend, and his allegations of the Russian military failing to recognise it.

It also says much about the two nations' approach to this war. For Ukraine, its army is reinforced by a steady flow of volunteers that understand their purpose and have demonstrated for nearly 11 months the willingness to sacrifice themselves in the defence of their nation.

Russia, on the other hand, has had to resort to using mercenaries — many of them pardoned convicts — for its most important campaign in Ukraine. Prussian theorist Carl von Clausewitz wrote extensively on the topic of "will" in conflict. These different approaches highlight an asymmetry in motivation and national will in this war.

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Vladimir Putin says 2022 was year of "difficult but necessary decisions".

A question of timing 

Finally, these two offensives are indicative of the mindsets of the political leaders of Russia and Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin is desperate for a victory of any kind.

Putin's military has not been able to achieve his political objectives — securing the five oblasts annexed in 2022. Therefore, Putin needs something before the one-year anniversary of his Ukraine invasion that he can portray to the Russian people as worthy of its costs. Soledar and Bakhmut fit this bill.


Volodymyr Zelenskyy has a different challenge. His forces ended 2022 in the ascendancy. They had achieved significant battlefield victories over the Russians in Kherson and Kharkiv. Coming into the new year, they have the momentum and morale that will underpin their 2023 offensives.

So Zelenskyy is not desperate for a victory at any cost. He can be patient and allow his Commander in Chief the time to carefully plan the military strategy for 2023. That said, he still needs many more battlefield victories — and Western support — to recapture those Ukrainian regions still occupied by Russia.

The approaches to these battles in the Donbas demonstrate the different national and military cultures and values of the war. And while both battles may be important to each side at present, they are likely to pale in significance to the offensives to be launched in 2023.

And therein lies the danger: neither side can afford to commit too much to these battles. They must husband their resources for military campaigns in the east and in the south this year. There are many bloody and costly months ahead.


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