A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 1, 2023

Why Ukraine's Defense of Bakhmut Was Essential for Its Counteroffensive

It not only caused Russia to waste scarce and valuable resources on a largely irrelevant objective, but it also prevented them from strengthening their defenses in the areas Ukraine is likely to attack in its counteroffensive. 

Russia has a vast defensive line to protect - but continues to focus its troops and efforts on Bakhmut, which is a strategic benefit for Ukraine. JL

Phillips O'Brien reports in his substack:

Most of the armored vehicles that Ukraine was promised are now in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops are about to finish their training. Ukrainian anti-air defenses have been upgraded. Ukraine is increasingly in a better position to launch their offensive. Are the Russian forces in the areas the Ukrainians want to attack vulnerable enough that the offensive can succeed? Ukraine is in possession of good intelligence, so should have a good idea of the condition of the Russian forces they will face. We see in Bakhmut a continuation of the Russian inability to fight effective, combined arms war. They could not surround or even cut off the city. Making the Russians fight for every block of Bakhmut was the right Ukrainian choice. (And) it kept the Russians from strengthening their defensive posture

Hi everyone, the front line seemed to move even less than normal this week—the Russians took a few more blocks of Bakhmut, but thats about it. Even those who have been confidently claiming Ukraine should abandon the city didnt have much of the heart to restart their constant chorus. I will discuss Bakhmut at the end of this update, but really there were two stories that I focussed on more this week. The first was some Danish pictures of Russian vessels operating in the area of the Nordstream pipeline explosion, and the second was the ongoing speculation about the Ukrainian counteroffensive (we might actually see it start in the coming month).

Nordstream Update

One of the most interesting stories of the last week, was that the Danish Government had in its possession of a Russian vessel with deployable under-water capabilities, right where the Nordstream pipeline was blown up last September.

Russian Vessel with Underwater Capabilities of the kind seen near the Nordstream Explosions


This story has always struck me as particularly revealing because it flushed those who were desperate to back Russia out of cover. Look, there was only one state with a clear interest in blowing up the pipelines—and that was always Russia. The interests were clear.

  1. Russia was preparing a winter offensive against European popular opinion and support for Ukraine. That offensive was based entirely around the fact that Europeans would be deprived of much of their energy over the winter, would be paying sky-hi prices for fuel and at the same time would have to suffer great cold because of lack of supplies. They literally spent the whole winter banging on about how Europe would freeze. If you want examples—look at these links. The second one even has Europeans being forced to eat hamsters for Christmas because they cant afford things.



  2. To carry off this campaign to freeze Europe and weaken popular support for Ukraine, Russia needed not to be seen as the culprit. They could not simply shut off the fuel, so far better to blow up the lines and make it look a mystery. This gives Russia its strategic plan in place with plausible deniability.

  3. Just refusing to deliver the fuel promised means Russia is in breach of contract, which itself calls for penalties and would even motivate those who want closer sanctions.

  4. Finally, the Russians could calculate that their useful idiot mouthpieces would cast blame on anyone but Russia, in their desperate need to show that Putin was not to blame. And guess what—they did. From Seymour Hersh to Tucker Carlson, there was this constant drumbeat of pro-Putin voices saying that anyone but Russia did this.

To be honest, I could not bring myself to engage in this story at the time because it was obvious who had the strongest motivation to do this, but it was also obvious that those supporting Putin would not care, and would do what they did. They were going to go the great lengths to muddy the waters, or even outright lie, to try and say Putin was not to blame. So, I did not think a discussion of this at the time would change anyone’s mind. Also, I’m partly in despair at those who claim that they represent progressive values, becoming mouthpieces of fascism—so I have continued to say little about it. However, with these pictures coming out, there is now some hard evidence that the Russians had the right equipment in the right place to do the job. One thing that always struck me as tragi-comic was people grasping at any old nonsense to say it wasnt the attack—somehow saying it was Ukrainians renting yachts, etc. This was clearly a technical operation that required the right equipment—and now we have hard evidence that it was the Russians who had the right equiment in the right place at the right time.

When I tweeted this out, the reaction was quite spectacular.


Look, the Russians almost certainly blew up the pipelines. Its nice to see some confirming evidence. However, the real story is that this event remains a defining wedge issue to see who is desperate to exonerate the Putinist Regime from blame for its many crimes. It flushes the Putinists out of cover and into the open.


With Spring coming, warmer weather (less mud) and Ukraine having more time to prepare, we are getting closer to the Ukrainians launching their offensive. That still doesnt mean its starting this week. Ukraine is increasingly in a better and better position to do so, and what aid its lacking will, sadly, not get there in time to help—even if Ukraine’s supporters decided to give it to them. What do I mean by that. Well, most of the armored vehicles that Ukraine was promised towards the end of 2022 are now in Ukraine. Ukrainian troops have or are about to finish their training on them. Ukrainian anti-air defenses have been upgraded. Overall, things are falling into place.

That said, Ukraine still doesnt have the fixed-wing air capacity it craves, F-16s, but even if these were promised now, it would take a number of months until they would be ready for operations. President Zelensky, in an interview with some Nordic journalists, admitted as much. We wont get F-16s in time, so we will launch any counteroffensive with what we have.

"It would help a lot... But we understand that we will not delay this, and we will start even before we have F-16s or something else," Zelensky said.


Overall, the reality is Ukraine has what it will have for the counteroffensive. As such the limiting factors are probably 4-fold.

  1. Do they have enough ammunition stockpiled to conduct operations?

  2. Are their troops trained enough on the new equipment to use it effectively?

  3. Are the conditions (weather) conducive to success?

  4. Are the Russian forces in the areas that the Ukrainians want to attack considered vulnerable enough that the offensive can succeed?

My guess is that 1 and 2 are probably yes—they have what they have. Number 3 will turn to a yes soon, if it isnt already. So much of what will determine the final time and place of the counteroffensive is 4. Thankfully Ukraine is in possession of good intelligence, so should have a pretty good idea of the condition of the Russian forces they will face. When they feel that 4 can be answered to a really standard—they will move.

That brings up back to Bakhmut.

Another Few Blocks of Bakhmut

The Russians did what they have been doing, inching forward in Bakhmut. And the Ukrainians did what they have been doing for months and months, make the Russians pay for every block. Here is the most up to date map that I could find

When the inevitable comments started up about the Ukrainians ‘losing’ Bakhmut, I put together a short twitter thread on the subject.


All we see in Bakhmut is a continuation of the Russian inability to fight effective, combined arms war. More than two months ago, the Russian sat firmly to the north and south of the city (see map in the thread). What could they not do from what looked like this advantageous position—they could not surround or even cut off the city. Now, I was not surprised by this, because Russian war fighting so far seems extremely limited to me in its capability. Its firepower, infantry heavy, with the ability to make only limited advances and no ability to exploit openings to make major advances.

As such, as Ive banged on about, making the Russians fight for every block of Bakhmut was the right Ukrainian choice. Not least it kept the Russians from doing the one things the Ukrainians would have wanted the least—for the Russians to go on the defensive and protect their military resources to strengthen their defensive posture with a Ukrainian offensive looming. This would have made the Ukrainian’s lives much worse.

Now, with all of Bakhmut still not taken, the Russians might still be forced on the defensive soon, as Yevgeny Prigozhin admitted yesterday.


That the Ukrainians have delayed the Russians from doing this until now is a sign of Ukrainian strategic sense. I think they understand their opponent far more than many in the western analytical community who were stressing Ukrainian weakness in Bakhmut and saying the Ukrainians should withdraw. Its worth noting that some of the loudest voices calling for Ukrainian withdrawal were exactly those who were talking about a super-strong Russian military before February 24, 2022. Maybe they still dont understand what the Russian military is, or maybe they still chronically underrate the Ukrainians (as they did before February 24) but regardless—they continue, I would say, to not understand the differences in the sides at war.

Indeed, in my midweek update this week, Im thinking of writing a piece on the myths of Bakhmut analysis. I originally was thinking of returning to my writings on What Makes a Power Great (see below). Would people like me to return to that—or do a column on the myths of Bakhmut analysis. Id like to hear from you.


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