A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 22, 2023

What the Battle of Bakhmut Has Done To Benefit Ukraine

As Napoleon said, "never interfere with your enemy when he is in the process of destroying himself." 

Ukraine has taken advantage of Russia's obsession with Bakhmut, which has kept it from attacking other regions as well as slowed its preparations for Ukraine's counteroffensive. The benefits are strategic and could be long lasting. JL

Phillips O'Brien and Mykola Bielieskov report in The Atlantic:

Far from needlessly destructive, the Ukrainian decision to fight for Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar - the 2nd Battle of the Donbas - has been grounded in solid strategic understanding, using the benefits of being on the defensive to train forces for the counteroffensive. (And), rather than harming (it), the decision to prolong the fighting in these cities has maximized chances of success. Russia went back on the offensive without trying to fix its manifold problems. The Russian effort in Bakhmut became the target of the Wagner Group, the Russian army on (other Donbas cities), committing significant resources, as the army and Wagner (try) to outdo each other for political purposes.

For many months now, Ukrainian and Russian forces have been waging a bloody battle over what might look like the most insignificant of locations. On tiny patches of land around small cities in the Donbas region—such as Avdiivka, Vuhledar, and, most famously, Bakhmut—the combat has been so intense that many Western commentators and outlets have been second-guessing and criticizing the Ukrainian government’s insistence on continuing to fight in those areas. According to documents included in the recent Discord leak, U.S. intelligence officials have been warning Kyiv for months to withdraw from Bakhmut. Far better, the skeptics’ argument goes, for the Ukrainians to pull out of the cities and take up new, more easily defended positions in the countryside, leaving the Russians—who seem willing to devote enormous quantities of soldiers and equipment to the fight—only small gains of little military value. Some observers even claim that, in holding on to Bakhmut, the Ukrainians might be jeopardizing their expected counteroffensive, in part by using so many munitions to defend the city.

But Ukraine does not have the luxury of choosing where it has to fight, precisely because it is preparing a counteroffensive. As it seeks to roll back the Russian forces that advanced farther into Ukrainian territory in last year’s Battle of the Donbas, Ukraine needs some time to master a wide variety of new equipment provided by its European allies and the United States, while simultaneously wearing down Russian troops and equipment.

Far from being needlessly destructive, the Ukrainian decision to fight for Bakhmut, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar—in what we are calling the Second Battle of the Donbas—has been, like most of the Ukrainian military’s decisions in this war, grounded in solid strategic understanding. The plan has been to use the benefits of being on the defensive to accumulate and train forces for the counteroffensive. Indeed, rather than harming any counteroffensive, the Ukrainian decision to prolong the fighting in these cities has more likely been integral to maximizing the chances of success.

The Ukrainian armed forces face an enemy with a quantitative advantage. The Russian army, particularly after the hastily prepared mobilization that started last September, had brought in a large number of new soldiers—albeit ones equipped, because of Russia’s earlier battlefield losses, with ever older and worse-maintained equipment than in earlier phases of the war. This expanded but flawed army needed time to train. Russia would have served its own interest better by allowing the new troops to develop their skills in protected defensive positions and by letting more experienced soldiers rest up in preparation for a Ukrainian attack. If Ukraine wants to get back the territory that Russia seized last year or in 2014, it will have to force the occupiers to retreat. And if the current war has made anything clear, it is that trying to advance against modern firepower is a dangerous job—as the Ukrainians themselves have demonstrated to Russian invaders many times in the current war.

Yet even after Russia’s 2022 campaign revealed major deficits in its forces’ leadership and effectiveness, Moscow’s military strategists seemed obsessed with the idea of taking the small communities now in contention in the Donbas. So Russia went back on the offensive without trying to fix its manifold problems. The Russian effort in Bakhmut was particularly intense because the community had become the target of the infamous Wagner Group, a private military company organized by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a onetime Kremlin caterer who is sometimes known as “Putin’s chef” and has become one of the pillars of his regime. The Russian army, meanwhile, set its eyes on Kupyansk, Lyman, Avdiivka, and Vuhledar and committed significant resources to their capture. In this way, the Russians unleashed a deadly competition within their own side, as the army and Wagner each seemed to go to greater and greater lengths to outdo each other for political purposes.

The fighting in Vuhledar produced one of the most extraordinary sights of the war. In early February, the Russians, desperate to take the town, ordered a column of tanks to advance single file down a road without demining equipment. The Ukrainians destroyed the whole column by scattering mines before and behind, leading to losses so catastrophic that the Russian commander was fired. Similarly, Russian formations failed to bypass and surround Avdiivka, failed to seize Kupyansk, made countless unsuccessful attempts to relieve Ukrainian pressure on Kreminna, and were unable to push Ukrainian formations back to Lyman (which Russia occupied before Ukraine liberated it in early October). Each of these failed operations cost the Russians dearly.

Bakhmut has been an even more grisly example of the Russian willingness to sacrifice soldiers. The Wagner Group has adopted a particularly perverse form of warfare. Raw, inexperienced troops of convicts are sent forward to attack Ukrainian lines with almost no hope of survival. Their role is only to be targets—to make the Ukrainians expose their own positions by opening fire. The apparent hope is that Russian artillery and subsequent assault waves can then advance past the bodies of their dead comrades. By applying these extremely costly “human waves” tactics, Wagner has been repeating a Red Army practice from World War II—one that today’s Western admirers of Soviet operational art typically don’t highlight.

However, even this form of self-destructive warfare has yielded only small territorial gains, and the losses of Russian soldiers, especially at Bakhmut, have been particularly shocking. A NATO official told The Guardian in late March that the Russians were suffering 1,200 to 1,500 casualties a day in the Second Battle of the Donbas, with most occurring in and around Bakhmut.

Ukraine has suffered real losses too. In December, when President Volodymyr Zelensky made his famous visit to Washington, one of the most emotional sections of his address to Congress dwelled on the fighting in Bakhmut. “Every inch of that land is soaked in blood; roaring guns sound every hour,” he said, adding, “The fight for Bakhmut will change the tragic story of our war for independence and of freedom.” In March, when Zelensky visited the Bakhmut front, he thanked soldiers for their heroic efforts while also stressing that the fight must continue until Ukraine wins. He has insisted that if Bakhmut falls, then Putin will smell weakness and use a Russian victory to muster international pressure against Ukrainian interests.

The Second Battle of the Donbas has exposed the terrible strategic choices that modern war forces upon combatants. Zelensky’s decision to prolong and play up the significance of the battle might seem callous, but it is part of a considered attempt to reduce Ukrainian losses in the future and prepare for the counteroffensive. Far better for Ukrainian forces to confront a large, unskilled Russian army when it is doing the attacking and exposing itself to great losses. If the Russian leadership keeps trying to press forward under these circumstances, the Ukrainians have to keep taking advantage.


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