Ukrainian troops slowly eased out of their most precarious defences in Bakhmut during the last week of February and the first of March, but they did not give up the eastern city to Russian forces.
Ukraine’s tactic was likely to limit its losses while continuing to suck in Russian forces into what now ranks as the war’s longest and most hard-fought battle.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has set the conquest of the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk, known collectively as the Donbas region, as one of his goals – and Bakhmut in Donetsk is key to that.
“We understand that after Bakhmut, they could go farther,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told CNN. “They could go to Kramatorsk. They could go to Sloviansk. It would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine in the Donetsk direction.”
Ukraine made a strategic decision to hold onto Bakhmut for as long as possible, reinforcing it with elite units on Sunday as Russian forces from the Wagner mercenary group entered its northern suburbs.
Zelenskyy said his top commanders were in favour of “continuing the defence operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut”, a city with a pre-war population of about 70,000 people.
He did not elaborate on the reasons, but the Institute for the Study of War suggested that Bakhmut has been a meat grinder for Russian forces, diverting them from other parts of the 800km-long (497-mile-long) 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 United States-based think tank said in a war assessment.
“Russian forces are unlikely to quickly secure significant territorial gains when conducting urban warfare, which usually favours the defender and can allow Ukrainian forces to inflict high casualties on advancing Russian units – even as Ukrainian forces are actively withdrawing,” it said.
Oleksiy Danilov, the secretary of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, has put a figure on that logic, saying Ukrainian forces have lost one soldier for every seven Russians in Bakhmut.
White House officials reported on February 17 that the Wagner Group alone, which has predominantly fought in the Bakhmut area, has suffered 30,000 casualties, including about 9,000 fatalities, in one year of war.
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 have been killed.
Al Jazeera could not independently verify the figures.
Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov told USA Today that Russia’s losses rendered it unable to mount a major offensive after this spring.
“Russia has wasted huge amounts of human resources, armaments and materials,” he told the newspaper. “Its economy and production are not able to cover these losses. … If Russia’s military fails in its aims this spring, it will be out of military tools.”
A controlled withdrawal
Ukraine began to show signs of easing out of Bakhmut on February 28 when presidential adviser Alexander Rodnyansky said a tactical withdrawal from parts of the city was not out of the question.
“So far, [our troops have] held the city, but if need be, they will strategically pull back because we’re not going to sacrifice all of our people just for nothing,” Rodnyansky said.
“I believe that sooner or later, we will probably have to leave Bakhmut,” Ukrainian parliamentarian Serhiy Rakhmanin said on Ukrainian NV radio the following day. “There is no sense in holding it at any cost.”
“But for the moment, Bakhmut will be defended with several aims: Firstly, to inflict as many Russian losses as possible and make Russia use its ammunition and resources,” he said.
Blowing the bridges
On March 1, the Ukrainian general staff said Russian troops were attempting to advance on Bakhmut “without interruption” although Zelenskyy said his forces “are keeping each sector of the front under control”.
That picture changed two days later when Ukrainian forces started blowing up bridges in and around Bakhmut, an indication that they were considering limited withdrawals.
One bridge was across the Bakhmutka River, which divides the city into eastern and western halves. The other bridge was just west of Bakhmut en route to Khromove. The moves suggested Ukrainian forces were trying to slow Russian progress through the city and prevent their rapid deployment farther west should Bakhmut fall.
“Units of the private military company Wagner have practically surrounded Bakhmut,” Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video posted on Telegram.
“Only one route [out] is left,” he said. “The pincers are closing.”
Prigozhin faced his own problems, however, complaining on social media that the Russian Ministry of Defence was not providing him with enough ammunition to finish the job.
Prigozhin said he wrote a letter to the commander of Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, presumably Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, “about the urgent need to allocate ammunition. On March 6, at 8 o’clock in the morning, my representative at the headquarters had his pass cancelled and was denied access to the group’s headquarters.”
The Russian defence ministry has been wary of Prigozhin, who has boasted about his group’s adroitness and implied that Russian regulars were ill-trained or incompetent.
On Wednesday, Prigozhin said Wagner was in control of half of Bakhmut. Geolocated footage backed his claim that Ukrainian defenders had been driven to the west side of the Bakhmutka River.
But if Ukraine reckons that the Russian focus on Bakhmut gives it an advantage, why does Russia insist on this strategy?
“Putin most likely calculates that time works in his favour and that prolonging the war … may be his best remaining pathway to eventually securing Russia’s strategic interests in Ukraine, even if it takes years,” Avril Haines, US director of national intelligence, told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Wednesday during an annual hearing on global threats.
But Haines, like other Western observers, believes Putin does not have the resources to pull this strategy off.
“If Russia does not institute a mandatory mobilisation and identify substantial third-party ammunition supplies, it will be increasingly challenging for them to sustain even the current level of offensive operations,” Haines said. “We don’t see the Russian military recovering enough this year to make major territorial gains. … They may fully shift to holding and defending the territory they currently occupy.”
Budanov agreed in a Voice of America interview.
“Russia is not ready for long-term hostilities,” he said, dismissing the notion of a multiyear war. “They show in every possible way that they are ready there [for] a ‘war of decades’. But in reality their resources are quite limited, both in time and in volume. And they know it very well.”
Ukraine coils itself to strike
Ukraine, meanwhile, continues to enrich its arsenal with Western-donated equipment in preparation for a major spring counteroffensive.
Germany and Poland said they will deliver 28 Leopard tanks this month while Canada doubled its initial donation of four. That brought the tally of allied battle tanks bound for Ukraine to 227.
The US also announced a new $2bn military aid package that for the first time included tactical bridges. These are driven into position and are unfolded to span rivers in offensives involving battle tanks and armoured fighting vehicles.
Ukraine has had a very high demand for guided artillery and rockets, and the Pentagon has had to improvise by finding cheap and plentiful components. One answer has come in the form of ground-launched small-diameter bombs, which pair artillery shells and rocket motors.
In the same vein, the head of NATO Allied Air Command said on Monday that the US had provided Ukraine with kits that turn unguided, artillery shells into precision-guided munitions with a range of 72km (45 miles).
A strategic goal will be an attempt to “drive a wedge into the Russian front in the south – between Crimea and the Russian mainland”, Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence, told the 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 final one before this war ends”.