Ukrainian forces slowly emerged from their most precarious defenses in Bakhmut during the last week of February and March 1, but they did not surrender the eastern city to Russian forces.
Ukraine’s tactics would likely limit its losses while continuing to suck Russian troops into what now ranks as the war’s longest and hardest-fought battle.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has set the conquest of the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, collectively known as the Donbas Region, as one of his goals – and Bakhmut in Donetsk is key to that.
“We understand that they can move on after Bakhmut,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN. “They could go to Kramatorsk. They could go to Sloviansk. It would be an open way for the Russians after Bakhmut to other cities in Ukraine in the direction of Donetsk.”
Ukraine made a strategic decision to hold on to Bakhmut for as long as possible and reinforced it with elite units on Sunday as Russian troops from the Wagner mercenary group moved into the northern suburbs.
Zelenskyy said his top commanders were in favor of “continuing the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut,” a city with a pre-war population of about 70,000 people.
He didn’t elaborate on the reasons, but the Institute for the Study of War suggested that Bakhmut may have been a meat grinder for Russian troops, distracting them from other parts of the 800 km (497 mi) front.
“The Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut remains strategically sound as it continues to consume Russian manpower and equipment as long as Ukrainian forces do not suffer excessive casualties,” the US-based think tank said. said in a war evaluation.
“Russian forces are unlikely to gain significant territorial gains quickly in urban warfare, which usually favors the defender and can allow Ukrainian forces to inflict heavy casualties on advancing Russian units – even if Ukrainian forces actively withdraw,” it said.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, has put a figure to that logic, saying that Ukrainian forces have lost one soldier for every seven Russians in Bakhmut.
White House officials reported on Feb. 17 that the Wagner Group alone, which has fought primarily in the Bakhmut area, has suffered 30,000 casualties in a single year of war, including about 9,000 fatalities.
Russia committed an estimated 190,000 soldiers to the invasion it launched on February 24, 2022, and has since added another 316,000. Ukraine estimated that more than 150,000 Russian soldiers were killed.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify the numbers.
Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov told USA Today that the losses prevented Russia from launching a major offensive after this spring.
“Russia has wasted enormous amounts of personnel, armaments and materials,” he told the newspaper. “The economy and production are unable to cover these losses. … If the Russian army fails in its objectives this spring, it will run out of military resources.”
A controlled withdrawal
Ukraine began to show signs of easing from Bakhmut as presidential advisor on February 28 Alexander Rodnyansky said a tactical withdrawal from parts of the city could not be ruled out.
“So far (our troops) have occupied the city, but if necessary, they will retreat strategically, because we are not going to sacrifice all our people for nothing,” Rodnyansky said.
“I believe sooner or later we will probably have to leave Bakhmut,” Ukrainian parliamentarian Serhiy Rakhmanin said on Ukrainian NV radio the next day. “There’s no point in holding onto it at all costs.”
“But for now, Bakhmut will be defended for several purposes: first, to inflict as many Russian losses as possible and allow Russia to use its munitions and assets,” he said.
Blow up the bridges
On 1 March, the Ukrainian General Staff said Russian troops were trying to advance towards Bakhmut “without interruption”, though Zelenskyy said his troops are “controlling every sector of the front”.
That picture changed two days later when Ukrainian troops began blowing up bridges in and around Bakhmut, an indication that they were considering limited withdrawal.
One bridge was over the Bakhmutka River, which divides the city into eastern and western parts. The other bridge was just west of Bakhmut on the way to Khromove. The moves suggested that Ukrainian troops were trying to slow down the Russian advance through the city and prevent their rapid deployment further west if Bakhmut fell.
“Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut,” Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video posted to Telegram.
“There’s only one route (out) left,” he said. “The tongs close.”
However, Prigozhin had his own problems, complaining on social media that the Russian Defense Ministry was not giving him enough ammunition to get the job done.
Prigozhin said he wrote a letter to the commander of the Russian military campaign in Ukraine, presumably Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, “about the urgent need to allocate ammunition. At 8 a.m. on March 6, my representative at headquarters had his pass canceled and was denied entry to group headquarters.”
The Russian Defense Ministry was wary of Prigozhin, who boasted about his group’s agility and suggested that Russian regulars were poorly trained or incompetent.
On Wednesday, Prigozhin said Wagner had half of Bakhmut under control. Geolocalized images supported his claim that Ukrainian defenders had drifted to the west side of the Bakhmutka River.
But if Ukraine thinks Russia’s focus on Bakhmut gives it an advantage, why is Russia insisting on this strategy?
“Putin most likely calculates that time is in his favor and that prolonging the war… may be the best course of action to ultimately secure Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years,” said Avril Haines , the US Director of National Intelligence. Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday at an annual hearing on global threats.
But Haines, like other Western observers, believes that Putin lacks the resources to implement this strategy.
“If Russia does not institute mandatory mobilization and identify substantial third-party munitions stockpiles, it will become increasingly challenging for them to maintain even the current level of offensive operations,” Haines said. “We don’t see the Russian army recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains. … They can fully transition to holding and defending the territory they currently occupy.
Budanov concurred in a Voice of America interview.
“Russia is not ready for prolonged hostilities,” he said, rejecting the idea of a multi-year war. “They show in every possible way that they are ready for (a) ‘war of decades’ there. But in reality their resources are quite limited, both in time and volume. And they know that very well.”
Ukraine rolls up to strike
Meanwhile, Ukraine continues to enrich its arsenal with equipment donated by the West in preparation for a major counter-offensive in the spring.
Germany and Poland said they will deliver 28 Leopard tanks this month, while Canada doubled its original donation of four. That brought the number of Allied main battle tanks en route to Ukraine to 227.
The US also announced a new $2 billion military aid package, which included tactical bridges for the first time. These are floated into position and deployed to span rivers in main battle tank and armored fighting vehicle offensives.
Ukraine has had a very high demand for guided artillery and missiles, and the Pentagon has had to improvise by finding cheap and abundant components. One answer has come in the form of small diameter ground-launched bombs, which combine artillery shells and rocket motors.
In a similar vein, the head of NATO’s Allied Air Command said on Monday that the US had supplied Ukraine with kits that turn unguided artillery shells into precision guided munitions with a range of 72 km (45 mi).
A strategic goal will be an attempt to “drive a wedge in the Russian front in the south – between Crimea and the Russian mainland,” Vadym Skibitsky, deputy chief of Ukraine’s military intelligence, told German media group Funke.
Budanov, Skibitsky’s boss, who is said to be the only senior Ukrainian official to have predicted the Russian invasion last year, said Ukraine “will fight a decisive battle this spring, and this battle will be the last before this war ends.”