Russia claims Bakhmut, but some see it as a Pyrrhic victory
It took the Kremlin almost a year and cost the lives of thousands of soldiers to capture Bakhmut, but now that Russian forces seem to have control of the Ukrainian city, it is fair to wonder about the value of this that they won.
Russian state media have been triumphant. A news anchor declared “Mission accomplished” over the weekend in a segment that quoted a Russian fighter who compared the capture of Bakhmut to the Soviet Union’s capture of Berlin in 1945.
By taking Bakhmut, Russia has made its biggest territorial advance since last summer, one that Moscow will try to present to the Russian people as a sign of military prowess on the battlefield after months of embarrassing setbacks. While his government presents the narrative of the war to a national audience, President Vladimir V. Putin has largely hidden its costs, including in Bakhmut, from the Russian people.
A senior Ukrainian official, Hanna Maliar, deputy defense minister, essentially acknowledged on Monday that the eastern city had been lost, saying the Russians were “cleaning up” to extricate the remaining Ukrainian soldiers from the ruins of Bakhmut.
General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, said these few troops would continue to defend their ground in order to provide “opportunities to enter the city should circumstances change” – suggesting their focus shifted from defending Bakhmut to make it difficult for the Russians to hold it.
Indeed, Russia’s hold on the city is far from assured. And beyond the politics and symbolism of Bakhmut’s capture, experts say it is highly unlikely that Moscow could turn the conquest of a ravaged city into additional gains that would fulfill Mr Putin’s ultimate goal of take the whole Donbass region in eastern Ukraine.
No independent tally of the total number of casualties has been verifiable, and each side is seen as inflating the other’s losses while concealing its own. But the Ukrainian military estimated that as many as 20,000 Russian troops were killed in the month-long battle and more than 100,000 injured, according to a senior Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity. discuss Ukraine’s military strategy. He made his assessment two months ago and warned it was a very rough estimate.
“There are thousands still rotting there,” the official said.
Ukraine, too, suffered heavy losses. Although Ukrainian officials declined to give a specific figure, their toll most likely includes several thousand dead and injured.
The city, once home to around 80,000 people, is mostly a pile of rubble, with no electricity, water or anything else that could sustain an occupying force or serve as a base to launch further incursions into the Ukrainian territory. The Ukrainian army retreated to much more defensible lines on higher ground outside the city.
This means, according to military experts, that Russian forces, having taken Bakhmut, now have limited options to go further.
“Look up ‘Pyrrhic Victory’,” said Ben Barry, senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based research group. “A victory that inflicts such losses on the side that is supposed to win the battle that it does not in fact help it achieve its strategic objectives.”
This is most likely what Russia achieved at Bakhmut, Mr Barry said, although he warned there were many unknowns, including the possibility that Russia had reserved its most elite and well prepared for additional offensive operations along the sprawling eastern front. Ultimately, however, few significant changes on the battlefield should be expected immediately, Barry and other experts said.
One of the leaked Pentagon documents that were discovered circulating online last month describes a US intelligence assessment of Russia’s campaign in the Donbass as “heading towards attrition”.
“Russian tactics have reduced Russian forces and ammunition stocks to such a level that unless there is an unforeseen resumption, Russian units may be depleted and thwart Moscow’s war aims, resulting in a protracted war beyond of 2023,” the document reads.
Avril D. Haines, the US Director of National Intelligence, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in May: “If Russia does not initiate a mandatory mobilization and secure significant supplies of ammunition from third parties to Beyond existing deliveries from Iran and other countries, it will be increasingly difficult for them to sustain even modest offensive operations.
Russia also faces another challenge. Hours after declaring “victory” over the weekend, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner private military company that led the assault on Bakhmut, said he would withdraw his fighters from Thursday.
“From June 1, not a single Wagner PMC fighter will be at the forefront until we undergo reformation, re-equipment and additional training,” Prigozhin said.
Withdrawing forces from an active front is not a simple task. Given widely reported tensions between Wagner and Russian military leaders and miscommunication within Russian ranks, analysts say Ukraine will watch for cracks to exploit.
Moreover, far from Bakhmut, along hundreds of kilometers of front line, Ukrainian forces are preparing for a major counter-offensive.
The battle for Bakhmut has been a drudgery for both armies, gobbling up resources, people, and time for what seems like limited strategic gain. But Russia has borne those costs disproportionately, according to Ukrainian and Western experts and officials, all seeking a battlefield victory that eluded the Kremlin for months.
When it started last summer, the battle for Bakhmut made more strategic sense. At the time, Russian forces controlled a large area of territory in northeastern Ukraine and had established a major military staging area at Izium, a railway hub in the northwest. By striking south from there and towards Bakhmut, the Russian forces hoped to drive the Ukrainian army out of the northern part of the Donetsk region by enveloping two major cities there, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
But a swift offensive by Ukrainian forces in late summer and fall drove the Russian army out of Izium and much of northeastern Ukraine. This eliminated the Russian threat from the north and allowed Ukraine to fully deploy its forces against Russian troops coming from the east.
“You could say that after losing Izium, the Russian military has no way to encircle this part of Donbass,” said Michael Kofman, director of Russian studies at NAC, a defense research institute based in Russia. Virginia. who was in Bakhmut This year.
The city, he said before the Russians took near-total control this weekend, “will likely represent a tactical gain at strategic cost and, at the cost of expended ammunition and manpower, may not make much strategic sense”.
While Russia used military contractors and ex-Wagner prisoners for the bulk of the fighting, Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut comprised the regular army, as well as elite special forces units, that Ukraine can hardly afford to waste.
Western allies have also questioned whether Ukraine is making the best use of its ammunition by taking up position at a site of seemingly limited strategic value. The Ukrainian public has also raised strong questions – as well as grumblings in the ranks – about the leadership’s decision to keep forces in the city for so long, rather than moving them to more defensible positions outside Bakhmut.
In doing so, they locked Ukrainian troops into fixed battle lines that did not play with Kyiv forces, Mr. Kofman and others said. The Ukrainian army has been most successful when its units have been given the opportunity to adapt and operate creatively in battle, attacking where they can find an advantage, but also retreating when the odds turn against them. they.
Just as Ukrainian officials said they wanted to exhaust the Russian forces in Bakhmut, killing as many as they could. Mr. Prigozhin, Wagner’s leader, said his objective in Bakhmut was to wear down the Ukrainians there, not to capture the town.
But there are other reasons why the Ukrainians have held out for so long.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has long said that voluntarily ceding territory, even for tactical gain, would be impermissible given the abuses Russian forces have perpetrated against civilians in the occupied territories.
As both sides prepare for the next phase of fighting, Russia’s goal of taking all of Donbass looks no closer than it did months ago, maybe closer. far.
Bakhmut opposed this goal like a brick wall. Russia gradually damaged the city and eventually claimed it. But the end result of such a strategy was always going to be a pile of bricks.