A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 23, 2023

How Bakhmut Became A Strategic Failure For Russia

The harsh reality for Russia is that Ukrainian forces have moved to more defensible positions on high ground to Bakhmut's west, within easy artillery range of the ruined city. 

Russia's manpower, weaponry and ammunition are so depleted that they are having trouble ending an incursion onto Russian territory near Belgorod by anti-Putin Russians who are arming themselves with captured Russian equipment from supposedly loyal troops who have fled. Not a good sign for the future of the Russian "empire." JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

[The Bakhmut]  operation ended in a strategic failure of (Russian) troops. The enemy has NOT been ousted from the Donbas in all main directions,  and in most directions has not been moved at all. During the offensive, Russian Armed Forces used up a lot of trained manpower, exhausted almost to the bottom the stocks of weapons, equipment and ammunition necessary for further offensive operations. The fight for Bakhmut did change the trajectory of the war. It fixed Russian forces, stopping attempts to advance around Vuhledar, Kreminna, Svatove, and Adviika. It cost Russia around 100,000 casualties, and it depleted Russia’s ammunition stocks

The famous Greek general King Pyrrhus of Epirus, having defeated the Romans at Heraclea in 280 B.C. and at Asculum a year later, remarked, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” We all know about pyrrhic victories, but the additional context is surprisingly relevant today. From Plutarch’s telling

The armies separated; and, it is said, Pyrrhus replied to one that gave him joy of his victory that one other such victory would utterly undo him. For he had lost a great part of the forces he brought with him, and almost all his particular friends and principal commanders; there were no others there to make recruits, and he found the confederates in Italy backward. On the other hand, as from a fountain continually flowing out of the city, the Roman camp was quickly and plentifully filled up with fresh men, not at all abating in courage for the loss they sustained, but even from their very anger gaining new force and resolution to go on with the war.

With Bakhmut’s fall to the Russians after one year of trying, Is anyone else in Russia pondering Pyrrhus’ fate? Certainly not in Russian Telegram and Twitter, where vile pro-Putin trash are celebrating their great “victory” after an initial muted reaction.

Sure, it has been a rough year for Russian and its stans, with about 40% of Russia’s initial 2022 war gains rolled back last fall thanks to big Ukrainian counteroffensives in Kharkiv and Kherson oblasts. But the manufactured joy over Bakhmut is truly something to behold.

There’s Jason Hinkle, an odious American conservative and Trumpite who has hitched his wagon to the Putin train.

Wagner not only liberated Bakhmut today, they also humiliated NATO leadership who sacrificed $200B & the second largest army in Europe to "secure Bakhmut at all costs."

Imagine pretending that NATO, which hasn’t provided $200 billion of anything (but we wish), did so only to defend Ukraine’s 58th largest city.

Imagine pretending that Russia “liberated” a city that it has been literally razed to the ground.

David Sacks is Elon Musk’s hype man, and just as odious.

Regional transport & logistics hub: Bakhmut gives Russia access to key roads and rail. It places larger cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk within easy range of Russian artillery.

Ukraine holds the high ground west of Bakhmut. Imagine being so stupid as to think Russia could actually move rail through that graveyard. Meanwhile, Kramatorsk is 55 kilometers away from Bakhmut. Russia’s longest-range artillery reaches 29 kilometers, so nowhere in range, much less “easy” range. If he’s talking about missiles and rockets, those already could (and regularly do) hit Kramatorsk and next-door Sloviansk. Russia didn’t need Bakhmut to rain destruction on its civilians.

More Sacks:

Unique defensive fortifications: Bakhmut’s network of subterranean salt mines and tunnels (100+ miles) contributed to its defensibility.

That was Soledar, a completely different city. But sure, take this guy seriously. And one last bit of Sacks:

“Fortress Bakhmut”: Bakhmut became a rallying cry for Ukrainian resistance. Zelensky called it “the fortress of our morale” and gave a Bakhmut flag to the US Congress. “The fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom,” he said.

The fight for Bakhmut did change the trajectory of the war. It fixed Russian forces in the area, stopping attempts to advance around Vuhledar, Kreminna, Svatove, and Adviika. It cost Russia around 100,000 casualties, and it depleted Russia’s ammunition stocks—something that even notorious Russian propagandist Margarita Simonyan was forced to admit:

Another large Russian troll account on Twitter spiked the football:

Russia have officially taken Bakhmut, AFU air defenses are so useless that Zelensky refuses to return to Ukraine, and Russia’s actual forces are still intact thanks to Wagner.

Just wanted to revisit to ask if you still think Ukraine are winning?

Zelenskyy was in Japan nailing down hundreds of millions in new aid and F-16s. Vladimir Putin was in … well, he can’t go anywhere or he might get arrested for war crimes. Meanwhile, the Chinese are moving in on Russia’s former sphere of influence in Central Asia, and Putin wasn’t even invited.

Furthermore, Russian forces are so depleted around Bakhmut that small squad-sized Ukrainian pushes are retaking several kilometers of territory in the city’s northern and southern flanks.

So yes, Ukraine is still winning.

Medved is Putin’s favorite troll, the Deputy Chair of the Security Council of the Russian Federation, and a former puppet “president.” Truthfully, It would be great if Musk went and checked out Bakhmut today. Please, please, please someone make it happen. And no, I don’t mean that I want Musk to get hurt; I mean perhaps his worldview might shift if he saw what Russian “liberation” actually looks like. He should take Sacks with him as well, as hopeless as a cause that would be.

Do these people listen to the gibberish they’re spewing? A very prominent pro-Russian troll:

The Battle of Bakhmut is over. It was one of the longest battles of the 21st century to date, and certainly the bloodiest.

Russia won. In doing so it destroyed much of the Ukrainian Army's combat power while buying time to generate forces for future offensives.

Wait, Russia needed time to regenerate forces? But the war was only supposed to last three days! What were they doing for the entirety of last year? What were the 400,000 soldiers they mobilized last fall all about? That wasn’t regenerating forces? And if you’re trying to buy time to regenerate forces, why would you go on the attack, which is inherently more costly than any defense?

It’s really hilarious seeing the same people who shrugged off losing over 14,000 square kilometers around Kherson and Kharkiv last fall suddenly decide that one small city with a pre-war population of 75,000 is the most significant victory ever. But I guess the belief that Russia is just holding back is still a real cope in their world.

The only reason why the Bakhmut meat-grinder is finally over is because a major Russian offensive is coming in June, after the mud dries.

Newsflash: Russia already launched its “major Russian offensive” back in January. If someone didn’t notice, it’s because the effort was that sad, pathetic, and ineffective.

Wagner is hightailing it out, and no one left is able to push the front forward. Ukraine holds the high ground west of Bakhmut and line-of-sight straight into the city. Any Russian forces out in the open will be fish in a barrel.

Ukrainian forces are advancing steadily toward Klischiivka to Bakhmut’s southwest. Once they take the heights overlooking the settlement, the Russian garrison in the town will have to retreat. There is one last line of defense after that, that T0513 north-south highway, currently manned by battle-depleted mobiks.  

We talked about the 3rd Army on Friday—the saddest, most ill-fated unit this entire war. R037 had a hilarious comment about them in that story:

1 extra lesson: The Russian 3rd Army Corps may be the worst unit in Russian history.
  • First battle: Reserve unit committed to stop the Kharkiv Counteroffensive.  Started fleeing while after barely beginning fighting, and mauled being pursued by UKR 3rd Tank Brig

  • Second Battle: Units of 3rd Corps sent to Kharson front, where they arrived in time to be defeated.

  • Third battle: Battle of Avdiivka, launched repeated armored assaults south of the city that lost almost all their armor.

  • Fourth Battle: Battle of Bakhmut—deployed as reserve troops on the southern flank.

I still think this is the worst unit in Russian history, but the 3rd Army Corps is giving it a run for its money. And if the Ukrainian army decides it’s worth the effort, it may be the last thing between Ukraine and a return to Popasna, which Russia took way back on May 7 of last year after weeks of human-wave attacks. (Popasna is to my colleague Mark Sumner what Dovhenke is to me. He’d be just as thrilled at its liberation as I was to Dovhenke’s.)

The 3rd Army Corp’s best hope is that Ukraine stops at Klischiivka, content to use its heights to pound Russian positions in Bakhmut, while deploying its new storm brigades in some other direction. Otherwise, this might be the location of their ultimate demise.

Check out this great story by community member R037 on ways Ukraine could use the F-16. He leads by saying, “I have the utmost respect for Kos’ analysis and expertise; but, on the matter of the F-16’s utility, I disagree.” To be clear, my concerns are more about the logistical complexity and breathtakingly high cost of the weapons system. I’d rather have more of other stuff in theater, like tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. That said, his argument rests on this scenario:

So a mission might go like this: F-16s will be flying CAP (combat air patrol) within 60-70 km of the front at low altitudes to avoid radar detection. The section of F-16s would be armed with AMRAAMs. An E-3 sentry would coordinate their movements while flying about 300km behind the front lines, giving it the ability to detect targets 100km behind Russian lines, but avoiding entering into S-400 long-range SAM battery ranges.

If a high-altitude fighter enters into the combat environment (within E-3 Sentry detection range) even far behind enemy lines, the F-16s receive data-linked targeting data and can line up and fire AMRAAMs. Flying low, the F-16s will be difficult to detect on radar, and can strike stealthily because of their low altitude—this would help to prevent Russian fighters from flying high-altitude CAP behind friendly lines.

Holy shit, that would be amazing! Yup, I’m game. Sign me up! Except … that entire scenario is predicated on 1) having AMRAAM missiles with their (up to) 160-kilometer range, and 2) hitting targets inside Russia, as Putin’s air force lobs its implements of death far behind the front lines, from the safety of Russian territory.

Yet, 1) there’s no suggestion that Ukraine will get AMRAAM missiles, and we know how squishy the allies get on anything long-range, but even worse, 2) the U.S. has gotten explicit assurance from Ukraine that they will not hit any targets inside Russian territory or its airspace. “All of the capabilities that the United States has proven to Ukraine come with the basic proposition that the United States is not enabling or supporting attacks on Russian territory,” said National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to the assembled press at the G7 summit in Hiroshima. “That will go for the support for the provision of F-16s by any party as well.”

So yes, it would be amazing to strike Russian aircraft hiding over its own territory, but the current rules of engagement prohibit that. This restriction severely limits Ukraine’s ability to protect its airspace and land, and severely limits the effectiveness of the aircraft.

Let’s check in with war criminal and fierce Russian nationalist war critic Igor Girkin, whose continued existence likely surprises even him. I asked at the top if anyone in Russia was pondering King Pyrrhus. Girkin might be the only one.

I already briefly expressed my opinion on the conclusion of the assault on Bakhmut in Telegram. But, reading the strainedly joyful comments on VKontakte [the Russian Facebook], I thought that it would be necessary to calmly and in detail once again go through this operation here too, which is now being inflated in every possible way (in order to stick "victorious laurels" on the bald head of "Cook" [Prigozhin]).

I wrote above about the “manufactured joy” from the pro-Russian side. Girkin says, “strained joyful comments.” We see the same thing—an attempt to hype themselves up over something that isn’t just not that much of a victory. I’m skipping a bunch of good stuff in the interest of space, so click the link above to read what I am omitting.

[The Bakhmut]  operation ended in a strategic failure of our troops. The enemy has NOT been ousted from the Donbas in all the main directions, in most directions - has not been moved at all. During the offensive, the RF Armed Forces used up a lot of trained manpower, exhausted almost to the bottom the stocks of weapons, equipment and ammunition necessary for further offensive operations. Therefore, increased attention has been paid to Bakhmut's "capture" for the past 2 months - it was necessary to achieve at least some result "for propaganda" in order to "take a breath" later ... Look, we "won" ... And yesterday they stopped immediately at outskirts of Bakhmut, as soon as they crawled to it, there is no strength to go further [...]

I consider the victory near Bakhmut:

  1.   Initially unnecessary ("distraction to an unusable object", I wrote about this many times);

  2. Pyrrhic. It was not worth the effort and money spent on it …

Girkin now expects Ukrainian forces to have the upper hand in their coming counteroffensive because Russian frontline units are exhausted from constant combat the last five months, they are running low on ammunition, and wherever Ukraine decides to attack, it doesn’t have to leave many troops behind the rest of the front, as Russia’s lines are too thinned out to present any offensive threat.


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