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The Bakhmut conundrum

Why the slaughterous battle for Soledar and Bakhmut is likely to be only the beginning of Russia’s exhausting, tedious, and fruitless winter campaign

Russian self-propelled howitzer Msta during combat in unknown location in the Donetsk region, 13 January. Photo: EPA-EFE / RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY PRESS SERVICE

December 2022 and January 2023 acted as the prelude to the winter campaign in Ukraine: the Ukrainian army used HIMARS to destroy a building where Russia’s servicemen were stationed on New Year’s Day, killing up to 200 soldiers and officers. There is heavy fighting for Bakhmut and Soledar in the Donetsk region, and we can see those resulting in a reshuffle of Russia’s top military brass. The counterpoint to this prelude were the events on the Bakhmut front. Novaya Gazeta Europe has asked Yury Fedorov, a military analyst, to present potential scenarios that might unveil on the Donetsk front and how those will affect both sides.

Why are Russian troops throwing themselves at Bakhmut

The battle for Bakhmut started in August 2022. A potential capturing of the city played a special role in Russia’s plans. Bakhmut is the only place on the strip of front line almost 70 km long between Horlivka in the south and Bilohorivka in the north where three strategically important highways meet. One goes north to Siversk, the other leads southwest to Kostiantynivka and further to Kramatorsk, while the third one is a road northwest to Sloviansk.

If Russia managed to penetrate the Ukrainian defence in the summer of 2022, its Izium and Lyman groupings would head towards Russia’s troops on the offensive in the north, eventually meet those near Kramatorsk or Sloviansk, and encircle Ukraine’s units active east of the Lyman-Bakhmut line or even the Izium-Kramatorsk-Bakhmut line.

This would be exactly a “tongs” structure that generals love to draw on maps. Ukraine’s Armed Forces would be in quite a tight corner this way. Today, same as back in the summer, Moscow considers the capturing of Bakhmut to be the first step to routing the Ukrainian troops in the northeast of the Donetsk region. This would be a stepping stone that would help Russia achieve Putin’s strategic goal: the occupation of the entire Donetsk region.

However, Ukraine’s successful offensive in the east that happened in September and October was truly a game changer. Russia’s Izium and Lyman groupings were depleted, meaning that Ukraine’s troops in the east of the Donetsk region were no longer at the threat of becoming encircled. Even if Ukraine’s army leaves Bakhmut, Russia will need to move towards Kostiantynivka, Kramatorsk, or Sloviansk, heavily fortified settlements, with the use of heavy combat and without any solid chances for success.

Meanwhile, a new defensive line has already been constructed beyond Bakhmut, according to Konrad Muzyka, a Polish defence analyst. The terrain there is even more challenging for Russia’s offensive as there are several high hills out there.

“Even if Russia captures the city, Ukraine will retreat to the next defensive line, forcing Russia to fight for another kilometre of land,” Muzyka says. Russia’s army will have to try and storm cities that have little strategic importance again, suffering heavy losses. However, despite the defeat in the Kharkiv region, Russia’s political and military leadership keeps putting a lot of effort into penetrating Ukraine’s defence near Bakhmut. According to Ukraine’s data, around 40 Russian battalion tactical groups with a total manpower of 30 to 40 thousand were concentrated in a 12 km strip of land between Bakhmut and Soledar in December 2022. Those were mainly men of the so-called Wagner Group, as well as airborne forces stationed in this area after moving from the west bank of the Dnipro River in the Kherson region.

The Bakhmutka river

The Soledar offensive is Russia’s attempt to get out of the blind alley its army found itself in near Bakhmut. Supposedly, by early January 2023, the Russian command realised that its army would not manage to capture the city anytime soon despite herculean efforts, and that the losses there were devastating. Ukraine’s army is offering tough resistance. The distinctive features of the local urban area and terrain are beneficial to the defending side. More specifically, the city is divided by the Bakhmutka river, also known as the Bakhmut, which is very difficult to cross with reasonably heavy machinery.

Also, a head-on offensive on a heavily fortified city requires major, several-fold superiority in manpower, weapons, and munitions. Russia’s side has failed to establish such superiority.

There is one more aspect here: Russia’s command realised in late December that the first lines of the attack, mainly former convicts recruited by the Wagner Group, were not able to achieve their objectives. Russia is forced to massively throw its crème de la crème into action, namely professional Wagner Group mercenaries with combat experience, as well as airborne forces to assist them. The losses that they suffer cannot be replaced using a hasty mobilisation. It takes at least a year to train elite forces like those.

When Moscow started its offensive of Soledar, it was expecting to capture the city in a few days, cut off the Т-0513 highway connecting Bakhmut to Siversk, and use operational encirclement at Bakhmut. In mid-January, Russia’s elite forces (both well-trained “Wagnerites” and airborne troops) managed to capture residential areas, mainly built-up with detached houses, through heavy fighting, and started moving towards the industrial area.

As of 16 January, they managed to drive Ukraine’s army out of town, but failed to cut off the Т-0513 highway that would allow them to head for Bakhmut. Ukraine’s defensive line is built along the highway, and heavy combat continues between it and the outskirts of Soledar.

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Putin’s losing streak

Operational data raises the following question: why is Russia’s command so obsessed with throwing loads of troops to storm Bakhmut and Soledar, and are those settlements strategically important at all?

They consider Soledar a key point, and capturing it, they believe, would allow to close in on Bakhmut from the northeast, as well as to cut off the Т-0513 highway, which, as Moscow may be thinking, would strip Ukraine’s forces in the area of supplies. The idea of depriving Ukraine’s army of supplies bears no relation to reality. Ukraine’s army in Bakhmut uses the М-03 highway for supplies. This highway connects Bakhmut with Sloviansk, while Siversk is connected via the Т-0513 highway, which turns northwest beyond Siversk and goes to Lyman, a city Ukraine liberated in October 2022. To pose a threat to Bakhmut from Soledar, Russia’s troops would need to penetrate Ukraine’s defensive line, “saddle” the Т-0513 highway, and capture the heavily fortified locality of Krasna Hora. It is impossible to predict when, if at all, it is going to happen, and how many losses would be required for this.

Today, Moscow is more concerned about politics rather than military considerations. Even a minor illusory victory on the battlefield is of high importance for Putin. He really needs to break his losing streak that started in September 2022. The lack of such a victory would make it very hard, if not impossible, for him to win approval to continue the Ukraine War among the elites that enjoy zero benefits from it. Prigozhin, whose “Wagner Group” is now storming Bakhmut and Soledar, is pursuing his own goals. His political strategy is based on Caesar’s formula of “I came; I saw; I conquered”. If he fails to conquer, though, he will finally become useless for the Kremlin, causing generals to start getting back on him.

The military command also needs a victory to shut up radicals who accused it of failing the Blitzkrieg, surrendering the Kharkiv region, Kherson, and of other misfortunes.

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s strategy appears much more complex and smarter. Moscow’s focus on occupying the Donetsk region, its main strategic objective of the war, is distracting Russia’s forces and reserves from other directions. Ukraine is now grinding down Putin’s army at Bakhmut, Soledar, and other key areas of the Donetsk front. If Ukraine leaves Bakhmut, its opponent will get stuck at Kostiantynivka, Kramatorsk, and Sloviansk, ending up with three or four Bakhmuts in exchange for one. This is the non-linear logic of war: a local defeat may turn out to be a victory of a much larger scale.

The talking point that the outcome of the Ukraine war is being decided in the Zaporizhzhia region has become a cliche. Much has been said and written about the Ukrainian army’s potential breakthrough towards Melitopol and how it may be cutting off the Donetsk-Volnovakha-Verkhniy Tokmak-Melitopol railroad system, moving westbound to the Kherson region, and reaching Chonhhar and Berdiansk. If this happens, there will be zero chance for a stand-off; Russia’s defeat will be inevitable. The deeper Russia’s troops are bogged down in the Donetsk region, the more realistic such a scenario appears.

However, there are other scenarios as well. For instance, Russia’s command may try to concentrate its shock troops somewhere in the south, use it to attempt an offensive on the Zaporizhzhia city, and then, if lucky, on Dnipro. It is hard to judge how realistic this scenario is. Worth noting is that Ukraine is training several reserve army corps. For instance, the 10th Army Corps is being recreated in the Dnipro region, while new corps are being formed in the Poltava region and in Western Ukraine. Those are being supplied with Western weapons and are being trained using NATO standards. Thus, this winter (or, more precisely, the winter and spring) campaign might be decisive for the Ukraine war.

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