A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 4, 2023

How Ukraine's Bakhmut Defense Lured Russia Into A Planned Trap

Russian forces have failed in every attack they have made along the 600 mile long Ukrainian front. Except at Bakhmut, where they have been allowed to make incremental progress. 

And as that last sentence suggests, it is increasingly apparent that that lure of potential success was a trap planned by the Ukrainian military to keep Russian attention and resources focused on Bakhmut, giving just enough to prompt hope that a small victory might be possible, thus goading them to commit more to that strategically insignificant area. An additional incentive for Ukraine was the presence of Wagner troops, because although more effective than much of the Russian army, they could be beaten in such a defensive struggle while simultaneously creating antagonism between Wagner and the regular Russian army. Assuming it continues to work as planned is an audacious and brilliant strategy. JL

Peter Olandt reports in Daily Kos:

8 or 9 months after starting, the Russians still haven’t taken Bakhmut.  But they are almost completing the plans Ukraine set for them 9 months ago.  Yes, this was a Ukrainian plan. Ukraine held the line in every other section of the front: Kreminna; Avdiivka; Vuhledar; countless other points. But they have been pushed back at Bakhmut. Ukraine wanted to keep the Russian’s attention there. To (do so), they had to give ground. They didn’t have to give up much, just a little kept the Russians coming for more “success”. Allowing Wagner to push forward at Bakhmut but not let Russia move forward in other places caused friction within Russian leadership. For Ukraine to succeed, Bakhmut had to fall very slowly to keep the Russians occupied for as long as possible.

Russia has been attacking Bakhmut since some time around July or August of 2022 (depending upon how close to the city the fighting is to count as fighting for Bakhmut).  I found the map below from an article by Kos from August 13, 2022.  



This was relatively soon after Severodonetsk fell further to the northeast.  Sieverodonetsk was Ukraine’s first attempt at using a city as bait for the Russians.  It was a brief success for Ukraine as highly trained Ukrainian forces using night vision goggles would terrorize the Russians during the night while standard Ukrainian troops held the lines during the day.  Unfortunately, it didn’t last long as the city was at the end of a relatively long salient.  When Russia broke through lines south of the salient (SW of the city) it forced a retreat of the whole salient to prevent forces from being encircled.

Eventually Bakhmut became the next focus for Russia.  Wagner began bragging about the area being the only place along the line where Russia was making advances.  Even in September when Ukraine was romping in the north during the Kharkiv breakout, the Russians (mainly Wagner group) refused to give up on the taking of Bakhmut.  

After Kherson fell in November, Bakhmut continued to be the one place along the entire line where Russia continued to make some progress.  As such, it became more and more of a focus for Russia.  Much of the propaganda for the war revolved around strained claims that because Ukraine hadn’t stopped Russia around Bakhmut, it was somehow inevitable for Russia to win the entire war, one 10 meter gain per day.

Now, 8 or 9 months after starting, the Russians still haven’t taken Bakhmut.  But they are almost finished completing the plans Ukraine set up for them 9 months ago.  Yes, this is part of a Ukrainian plan.  Ukraine has held the line in every other section of the front.  They’ve held at Kreminna.  They’ve held at Avdiivka.  They’ve held at Vuhledar.  They’ve held at countless other points of the line.  But for some reason they have been pushed back at Bakhmut.

There are several possible reasons for being pushed back here.  Perhaps Wagner was more difficult to defend against than the regular Russian army.  Perhaps the logistics were superior here.  Maybe they simply focused more troops here.  I find none of these to be convincing.  Avdiivka would have similar logistics as the Bakhmut area.  Vuhledar should have sufficient logistics as well.  Wagner prison conscripts are not better than VDV or similar troops.  Maybe it’s because of the concentration of troops, but Ukraine could have countered with more troops of their own.  We know they have them.

The reason Russia has been able to move forward at Bakhmut is because Ukraine wanted to keep the Russian’s attention there.  In order to keep Russia’s attention, they had to give ground.  They didn’t have to give up much, but just a little here and a little there kept the Russians coming back for more “success”.  We’ve seen repeatedly that when Russia got a little too much too quickly, Ukraine would push back and stabilize the line for a bit.  And then Ukraine would go back to allowing a little at a time again.  

Why do this?  Why let the Russians take land?  When Russian General Surovikin took over the Russian forces last fall, it was clear he was changing the general Russian philosophy regarding the war.  He chose to finally remove troops from Kherson in an organized retreat instead of keeping them there until they collapsed.  He started defensive works along the line and stopped a general push everywhere.  Surovikin looked like he was going to hunker down for the winter to stem Russian losses and train new troops.  Russian forces would be redistributed and possible a mobile reserve formed.  This would have been bad for Ukraine.  Not insurmountable, but Ukraine would much prefer Russia to continue to make pointless attacks into prepared defenses with horrible Russian losses than to actually get organized and build up strength.

Bakhmut in particular held a couple of attractions for Ukraine.  First, unlike Sieverodentesk, Bakhmut was not initially a Ukrainian salient.  Instead Russia could be drawn into a salient of its own by retreating this one section of the line while holding north and south of the salient.  Second, the Wagner forces were there.  

Wagner has been antagonistic with the general Russian army and competes for attention and supplies.  Allowing Wagner to push forward at Bakhmut but not let Russia move forward in other places would cause friction within Russian leadership.  I’d put down good money to wager that the reason Surovikin got sacked after such a brief tenure was that Wagner was showing him up by still making gains.  Putin probably didn’t want to hear excuses from Surovikin about what the “prudent” military move was when Wagner was showing Putin what could be done if they just put more effort in.  So Surovikin was let go and Gerasimov was put in.  This is the same Gerasimov who was responsible for much of the optimistic planning at the start of the war around Kyiv.  Gerasimov probably convinced Putin that he would continue to attack if put back in charge and could replicate Wagner success on other parts of the line.

And then we got suicide marches into Vuhledar and massive attacks for no gain at Avdiivka and Kreminna.  But Bakhmut kept inching along to keep the Russians coming back for more.  Had the Ukrainians held firm at Bakhmut, Wagner would not have been able to brag about their success and goad Gerasimov into making stupid attacks along the line.  Surovikin would have probably remained and spent the winter preparing with only minor skirmishing and probing.  So for Ukraine to succeed, Bakhmut had to fall, but it had to fall very, very slowly to keep the Russians occupied for as long as possible.  Ukraine could not let the Russians get all of Bakhmut too quickly.  If they had, there was always the chance Russia might declare success and pack it in for the rest of the winter.  And Ukraine couldn’t let Russia get too close to Kramatorsk either.  Bakhmut had to fall according to a very strict schedule.  And soon we’ll get to see what all that hard work by the Ukrainians has accomplished.

To be clear, I’m not saying Ukraine WILL attack at Bakhmut.  It’s possible, but not necessary for a pin Russians in Bakhmut plan.


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