Bloody Bakhmut siege poses risks for Ukraine
The Washington Post January 15, 2023
Ukraine faces difficult choices about how much deeper its military should get drawn into a protracted fight over the besieged city of Bakhmut, as Kyiv prepares for a new counteroffensive elsewhere on the front that requires conserving weapons, ammunition and experienced fighters.
Russia has escalated its assault in the area in recent days, unleashing savage fighting that has underscored the high cost of the battle. Russian mercenaries and released convicts from the Wagner group pushed into the neighboring salt-mining town of Soledar and inched closer to Bakhmut, the capture of which has eluded them for months despite an advantage in firepower and the willingness to sacrifice troops.
"When we kill five out of 10 of their soldiers at once, they are replenished again to 10 over the course of several hours," said Andriy Kryshchenko, a deputy battalion commander of a National Guard unit posted to the south of the city.
"Although they storm in small groups, people are constantly replenished, which creates an opportunity for them to storm positions very often — sometimes five, six, seven times during the day," Kryshchenko said.
The Ukrainian military must now decide how many more forces and how much more ammunition and weaponry it can expend to continue defending Bakhmut — a city that many military analysts view as having relatively little strategic significance to the broader battlefield, but which has become freighted with political symbolism for both sides.
The decisions come as Ukrainian officials — awaiting an influx of new armored vehicles promised by the U.S., France and Germany — say they are preparing to launch a new counteroffensive in the coming months to try to wrest back more territory from the Russians. Success in that campaign would be critical for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to demonstrate continued momentum on the battlefield and retain domestic and international support in a war now in its eleventh month.
"They need to have units out of combat that they are equipping and training up for this offensive," said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at Virginia-based CNA. "This is why Bakhmut is a battle that I think was advantageous to Ukraine, but now there are questions about how much the cost of fighting for Bakhmut could impede Ukraine's overall strategy for this winter or spring."
Starting in mid-2022, Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin set his sights on capturing Bakhmut to show the Kremlin that, unlike Russia's beleaguered military, which was retreating from positions, his private mercenary army remained capable of taking initiative and capturing new territory on the battlefield.
Many military analysts viewed the move as strategic folly, watching as the Russians suffered grave losses, wasting droves of primarily mercenary and ex-convict troops, as well as ammunition and weaponry, in pursuit of a city with relatively little strategic significance for the wider war.
The Ukrainians for months seemed to be succeeding in causing Russian attrition over a questionable target. Moscow has thrown tens of thousands of troops into the fight, according to a senior U.S. official, who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive military details, and has lost thousands of those men in the battle for Bakhmut.
But in recent weeks, the Ukrainian city that once housed 70,000 people has become imbued with additional political symbolism on both sides. For the Russians, its capture would allow Moscow to tout a much-needed victory and claim momentum in a war in which its forces haven't captured a major city since last summer. For the Ukrainians, Bakhmut has been trumpeted by officials as a "fortress" and an icon of a superhuman resistance, making even a calculated retreat politically fraught.
Zelenskyy visited the city late last year and in a subsequent speech to Congress, compared it to the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolutionary War. He presented a flag signed by defenders of the city to Vice President Kamala Harris and then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Ukrainians regularly repeat the slogan, "Bakhmut holds," as the latest sign of unwavering resistance in the face of a brutal Russian war.
Ukraine is under pressure to launch a new counteroffensive in coming months — and fend off any new campaigns by a Russian force buttressed with newly mobilized soldiers — at a time when attrition is testing its reserves of trained fighters and ammunition.
The top general in the United States, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley, said in November that Russia and Ukraine had each seen about 100,000 of their troops killed or wounded since the start of the conflict in February 2022, a staggering toll that underscores the challenges posed by a war of attrition.
The United States and its allies have approved new military aid for Ukraine in recent days, preparing to ship armored fighting vehicles designed to help Ukrainian forces in a new campaign. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that the fierce fighting around Bakhmut showed "how vital it is that we step up our support, our military support to Ukraine."
Top Ukrainian military officials regularly emphasize that trained and motivated fighters are the most precious resource in Kyiv's arsenal, taking pains to plan operations to ensure the fewest losses possible. But Bakhmut has become a brutal slog, as Russia dumps thousands of fighters on the front, testing Ukrainian forces with wave after wave of personnel.
A Ukrainian commander, who recently fought in the city and spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about the battle, described "great losses" within his unit.
"As for the symbolism, to each his own," the commander said. "But we have lost many friends in the defense of this city, so we do not want to surrender it now. But maybe a temporary withdrawal would save some of our people."
Andriy Miheychenko, the 42-year-old commander of a unit in Ukraine's 53rd Mechanized Brigade, who was fighting in Bakhmut until late December, described the Russian mercenary fighters as a "cheap resource" — dying in very large numbers while proving relatively ineffective.
"Prigozhin and those guys, they've been fighting for how many months?" he said. "But Bakhmut is still ours. … On the other hand, it's a shame because we're exchanging the lives of our soldiers and officers — very good officers — for the lives of these Russian convicts."
Officials in Kyiv, from Zelenskyy down, have regularly emphasized that every piece of Ukrainian territory must be fought for, noting they are unwilling to abandon Ukrainian citizens to Russian occupation.
"For us, Bakhmut is the same corner of our country as Soledar, Kherson, Melitopol, Kharkiv or Dnipro. It is our native land. We fight and will fight for every meter of our land," said Yuriy Skala, the commander of an intelligence battalion currently fighting in Bakhmut. "But we will fight smartly: If the circumstances require a tactical maneuver, the top military leadership will surely make the right conclusions and actions."
"I will support the commander in chief's decision to maneuver tactically and create a new line of defense if it becomes clear that casualties are too high," Skala added. "We are not Russians. We are Ukrainians, and human life is the highest value for us."
Mason Clark, a senior analyst and Russia team lead at the Institute for the Study of War, said he would be surprised if Ukrainian military officials allowed their force in Bakhmut to suffer a level of attrition significant enough to impact their ability to launch a counteroffensive elsewhere, noting that commanders have demonstrated astute operational planning.
The Ukrainian military is cognizant of the need to preserve forces for a coming counteroffensive, the senior U.S. official said.
"They are still fighting, but they aren't fighting with the same amount of resources that they originally were, because they likewise share concerns about sustainability here," the official said.
The Ukrainians are not "giving up the ghost," the official said. "They are marshaling their forces appropriately."
The senior U.S. official cautioned against completely dismissing Bakhmut or neighboring Soledar as nonstrategic places that Kyiv can simply relinquish, noting that the salt and gypsum mines give the area economic significance. Theoretically, the Russians could use the deep salt mines and tunnels to protect equipment and ammunition from Ukrainian missile strikes. Moscow has also endowed the city with import.
"To some degree, Bakhmut matters to [Ukraine] because it matters so much to the Russians," the senior U.S. official said, noting that control of Bakhmut is not going to have a huge impact on the conflict or imperil Ukraine's defensive or offensive options in the country's eastern Donbas region.
The official added, "Bakhmut is not going to change the war."
Khurshudyan reported from Kyiv. Kamila Hrabchuk in Kyiv contributed to this report.