A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 10, 2023

Ukraine's Strategy For the Second Battle of Donbas and Defense of Bakhmut

Ukrainians with access to data appear to agree unanimously with the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, the nation's most senior military officer, that Bakhmut has been a "slaughter-fest" for Russian forces.

This reality underlies the logic of Ukraine's stubborn defense of that otherwise insignificant city and other Donbas towns whose value has literally been reduced to rubble. Ukraine's casualties have also been high, as Russia continues to try to capture the city against all military logic, to gain even a minor political trophy which it can then use in an attempt to demand a ceasefire that solidifies its gains before a Ukrainian counteroffensive retakes them. That Russian strategy is generally derided as delusional, so Ukraine is willing to continue the slaughter, furthering its own aims. JL 

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

The Second Battle of the Donbas is seen by Ukrainians as having one purpose, to prepare for the counteroffensive. From the Ukrainian perspective the importance of this battle is to degrade Russian forces and allow the counteroffensive a greater chance for success. It's been very difficult as Ukrainian losses have been real, but the unanimous view by those who have knowledge of the data, was that the damage inflicted on Russian forces was far higher, and a battle that had to be fought. One of the reasons the Ukrainians were so committed to the fight was that the Russians' expending massive resources to take these towns presented Ukraine with the best opportunity to degrade Russia’s capabilities.

A Weekend Update Like No Other

This weekend update is being written on the night train as it travels from Kyiv to Warsaw. Its dark now, so I cant see much, but having driven this way a week ago, I have a pretty good idea of the topography. As we are not that long from Kyiv, we will be passing through acres of dark, rich farm fields, which make up much of central Ukraine. The sight-lines will be long, as the land is mostly flat, punctuated by large sections of forest, the occasional town or village and every once in a while by low hills. As we get closer to western Ukraine, the hills will get steeper and more numerous, the countryside more variable, but the deep, dark earth and the fertile soil will remain. The famous Black Earth of Ukraine is real and striking to someone seeing it for the first time. Its one of the reasons this is such an important country for Europe and the rest of the world. Ukraine can grow almost anything and is perfectly placed and equipped to be the breadbasket of much of Europe, the Middle East and Africa.


(Daffodils Growing on the Ukrainian Battlefield—I thought it was an apt picture to show the fertility of the land. Source, Генеральний штаб ЗСУ (@GeneralStaffUA) / Twitter

Though I’m writing a lot about the countryside, I have to admit that I spent very little time there. Most of the last week was spent in and around Kyiv. I was part of a small University of St Andrews group that visited Ukraine. For the last week I have been honored to meet with a wide variety of Ukrainian decision-makers and analysts. This included members of the government (not including President Zelensky) senior members of all the armed services, a wide range of members of the analytical communities, those working tirelessly to help Ukraine construct a war-time economy (for now and for future security), those trying to bring Ukraine’s story to the wider world, activists who are determined to bring the reality of Ukraine’s needs to the international community, NGOs aiding Ukraine to function by clearing mines and the like, those organizing charities to help Ukraine fight the war (shout out to Come Back Alive: (Come Back Alive – the fund of competent army support - Home page (savelife.in.ua) and many ‘ordinary’ Ukrainians from students to former ministers who are all doing their cause. In the coming weeks I will try to write a little about all of these groups and the work they are doing, though for obvious reasons I will not mention senior government/military people or quote them directly.


What I can do in this weekend update is give a snapshot of how the war was presented to me over this past week, directly from the wide variety of Ukrainians with whom I was fortunate enough to talk. These reports will It will not be based on any outside reporting , though I might include an example or two from outside sources that corroborate what I was told in Ukraine.

Though the Ukrainians talked about a huge number of different strategic questions while I was here, I would say that three overriding themes were these: The Second Battle of the Donbas; The Coming Counter-Offensive; What Ukraine Needs Going Forward. In this update I will handle the first of these, and write subsequent updates (which I will definitely keep free) on the other two.

The Second Battle of the Donbas

This is a name used by a particularly bright analyst that I met, for the fighting that has been going on over the last few months in the long arc stretching from Vuhledar to Rubizhne and including Adviika and most famously Bakhmut.

(note—this map is from Deep State. I noticed that some Ukrainians who really were following the situation closely and had significant military understanding looked at this map for what was considered one of the most reliable open-source pictures of the present situation on the ground: DeepStateMAP | Map of the war in Ukraine

The Second Battle of the Donbas was generally seen by some of the Ukrainians as a combined engagement which has one major purpose, to prepare for the counteroffensive that most people believe will come later this Spring or Summer. From the Ukrainian perspective the great importance of this battle is to degrade Russian forces and allow the counteroffensive a greater chance for success. Its been a very difficult campaign as Ukrainian losses have been real, but the unanimous view I was given by those who actually have some knowledge of the data, was that the damage inflicted on Russian forces was far, far higher, and it is a battle that had to be and should be still, fought. Indeed, what was said was that one of the reasons the Ukrainians were so committed to the fight was that the Russians seemed determined to expend massive resources to take these towns and it presented the Ukrainians with the best opportunity possible to degrade Russia’s fighting capabilities.

As part of the Second Battle of the Donbas, much of the discussion involved the fighting around the city of Bakhmut. (though there was also some comment that it was strange that people seemed to look at this one engagement in isolation and not as part of the larger picture). The clear picture I was given by Ukrainians who would know was that Bakhmut was being defended precisely because it was the best place possible to destroy Russian strength in both soldiers and equipment. I had a number of different sources make comments on estimated Russian losses around Bakhmut. They all told a similar story, though in different ways.

1)      One governmental source maintained that generally the figure of 7-9 Russian soldiers lost to 1 Ukrainian was on average accurate throughout the campaign.

2)      Another senior source said that Russian average losses over the last few weeks in the Bakhmut area were 500 casualties a day (killed and wounded)

3)      Another source with knowledge estimated that approximately least one-third of all Russian losses in the war over the last few months have occurred in the Bakhmut area.

All these sources admitted that Ukrainian losses in Bakhmut have all been significant, but they maintained that the country had no choice but to continue to fight the battle as it had become so talismanic for the Russians, who seemed willing to basically throw massive amount of force into taking the town. Indeed, if evidence from the last weeks is true, the Russians are sending more and more into a pretty desperate attempt to take the town to claim some kind of political victory. This can be seen in two things:

First, it was remarked that the town of Bakhmut seemed to be the focus of increasing Russian efforts, which made little sense. Instead of trying to cut off the town from north and south, the Russians have recently been advancing straight into the city. The Russians seemed intent on taking landmarks in Bakhmut that they could take pictures from, to try and make the case that the city was theirs. As they did that, they opened themselves up to even greater losses, as the Ukrainians have developed a very good surveillance systems over the city.

Worth noting that the NYTimes story about Bakhmut today reiterated a Ukrainian claim that they have fought the Russians to a standstill when it comes to the supply roads, so the Russians are continuing to put their efforts to take the city center.

Fight for Roads Into Bakhmut Has Hit a Stalemate, Ukraine Says - The New York Times (nytimes.com)

The second point was that it was not just Wagner that was fighting for Bakhmut. The city is overall a Russian high priority target and has become the focus of many regular forces, including some of the better remaining troops in the Russian army. For what its worth, its interesting that the UK MOD, in its update two days ago which stressed Russian advances in the centre of Bakhmut, mentioned reinforcements from regular army units, including airborne forces.

Russian forces closing in on centre of Bakhmut, British intelligence says (thenationalnews.com)

Today, as Im looking there are further reports of different regular army forces being thrown into the fight (and growing tension between them and Wagner).

So, the Ukrainians have worked out what seems like a coherent strategy to fight for the town. As long as the Russians are throwing increasing force into the battle, and advancing by blocks a day, the Ukrainians will continue to defend the city.

As they will the other Russian targets in the Second Battle of the Donbas. The Ukrainians will do that because they want the Russians to keep attacking, to keep them from building up fresh reserves and to keep them from building up deep defensive lines. When the counteroffensive comes, the Ukrainians want to face as small number of fresh, rested Russian troops as possible.


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