For the first time in eight months, the Russians are on the cusp of taking a Ukrainian city, albeit a small one already abandoned by more than 90% of its prewar population.
Ukrainian defenses in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut are being squeezed by a combination of intense artillery, mortar fire, and airstrikes and a substantial commitment of ground forces, both Russian regulars and fighters of the Wagner private military company.
If and when Bakhmut falls, it may be tempting to ask whether Russian forces are improving, learning from the catalog of mistakes they have made so far in this conflict and finally exploiting their superiority in numbers and firepower.
The answer: probably not.
Mick Ryan, a former Australian general and author of the WarInTheFuture newsletter, says “the Ukrainian Armed Forces might decide that they have achieved all they can by remaining in their defensive locations around Bakhmut, and that force preservation for the battles that follow is more important.”
But a Ukrainian withdrawal does not equal disaster if carried out in an orderly way. “It should be treated as a routine tactic rather than a harbinger of disaster,” Ryan says.
The Ukrainians have used Bakhmut to inflict massive losses on the attacking force: by some estimates at a ratio of 7:1. There comes a moment when it is smarter to withdraw than suffer growing losses and the damaging blow to morale of seeing the surrender of hundreds and maybe thousands of surrounded Ukrainian soldiers.
For the Ukrainians judging that moment is critical.
But for the Russians, taking Bakhmut would not alter the fundamental shortcomings in their campaign.
The battle for Bakhmut does suggest to some extent the Russians are changing their way of warfare, or at least trying to do so.
They still rely on massive barrages of indirect fire (artillery and howitzers, rockets, aerial bombardment) to pulverize defensive positions. This was the tactic in the cities of Mariupol, Severodonetsk and Lysychansk last year. In short: leave nothing standing that can be defended.
To recall the words of the Stalin-era Marshal Georgy Zhukov, “The longer the battle lasts the more force we’ll have to use.”
But such persistent fire demands an efficient logistics chain. Russian forces still struggle on that count.
For sure, the end game in Mariupol and other cities taken last year ultimately involved men advancing street by street. But they were rarely Russian regulars, more often Chechen units, militia from the self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk Republics, and small numbers of Wagner operatives.
And frequently they were moving into territory already abandoned.
The campaign to take Soledar in January and now nearby Bakhmut has been out of the same playbook but with one notable and gruesome exception: the waves of infantry recruited by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner Group sent to flood Ukrainian defenses.
Prigozhin has acted unilaterally to shame the Russian military and burnish his own reputation. Wagner fighters taken prisoner by the Ukrainians told CNN they had next to no coordination with regular Russian forces, except for artillery support, as they were sent forward in their hundreds and thousands into the Ukrainian line of fire.
Prigozhin bragged last week that if Wagner left Bakhmut, the front would fall.
There are also signs that the Russians have used more infantry in their unsuccessful efforts to advance into Vuhledar, again with heavy losses.
It’s as if the Russians are bolting on rather than integrating a new dimension to their battle order: overwhelm Ukrainian defenses with wave after wave of cannon fodder – and accept casualty rates of up to 80% in the process.
Such a devastating percentage of casualties is unsustainable along front lines extending thousands of kilometers. To some analysts, such losses mean “the conditions are already present for a large-scale Russian military mutiny.”
Bakhmut has become an obsession for the Russians in the absence of progress elsewhere, far beyond any strategic rationale. Anxious that Prigozhin was taking the bouquets while it was taking the brickbats, the Russian Defense Ministry started pouring more forces into the area.
But the focus on Bakhmut may have come at a cost to Russian operations elsewhere. Rather than a triumph of Russian generalship, the grinding campaign to take Bakhmut, first attacked some 10 months ago, illustrates the desperate need for a “win” – any win – regardless of the broader battlefield.
That may explain why Ukrainian forces have been ordered to hold the line. Volodymyr Nazarenko, a deputy commander in the National Guard of Ukraine, said last week the Russians “take no account of their losses in trying to take the city by assault. The task of our forces in Bakhmut is to inflict as many losses on the enemy as possible. Every meter of Ukrainian land costs hundreds of lives to the enemy.”
Russia’s mobilization last autumn, recruiting some 300,000 men into uniform, provided a pool of foot soldiers and helped reconstitute units that had suffered heavy losses. At the same time, Prigozhin was scouring Russian prisons and converting his Wagner forces into the shock troops of the campaign.
Ukrainian commanders knew they would soon face another onslaught.
But according to the Modern War Institute at West Point, “Russia has been unable to prove it can effectively integrate new forces into damaged formations or build cohesive teams from ad hoc groupings of scattered unit remnants.”
Russia is now “attempting to fight a costly, prolonged conflict with a pickup team of replacements while suffering from severe battlefield leadership attrition,” the Institute assesses.
But there are more systemic issues.
The Ukraine conflict has seen Russian forces gradually trying to move away from reliance on Battalion Tactical Groups (BTGs), combined arms formations that have proved ill-equipped for the Ukrainian conflict. Their Achilles heel: a lack of infantry and reconnaissance.
The lack of each within BTGs in the advance toward Kyiv a year ago was one of the reasons the campaign stuttered and failed. Russian forces were vulnerable to ambush.
That vulnerability has been aggravated by an ingrained culture that values obedience over initiative.
In the words of a recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations, “The inadequate training and incompetence of Russian military personnel – combined with the strict hierarchies in which they operated, which left officers incapable of acting on their own initiative – meant that they were unable to quickly coordinate advances deep into enemy territory.”
As Rob Johnson wrote in the US Army War College Quarterly: “Basic battle skills (such as alertness, logistics management, and moving tactically across the terrain to avoid casualties) were substandard, and evidence suggests a significant lack of discipline.”
Such deficiencies are not cured overnight. And retooling formations and structures in the midst of fighting a war is not ideal, but even less so when there is a shortage of competent mid-level commanders. The loss of colonels and lieutenant colonels adds to Russian troubles.
Russia “has responded to battlefield struggles in Ukraine by turning to its past model of fielding a large conscript force,” says the Modern War Institute. “In some ways this mirrors the tension between Russia’s pursuit of a technologically sophisticated way of war and its longstanding bias for simple, rugged mass.”
That rugged mass has certainly inflicted severe losses on Ukrainian units in the past few months, and some Ukrainian commanders have questioned the wisdom of clinging on to both Soledar and Bakhmut.
But even if the Russian flag is raised over the ruins of Bakhmut, it may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory.
As Mick Ryan writes: “If the Russians do capture Bakhmut, they are seizing rubble. It is a town with minimal strategic importance, with almost no remaining infrastructure to support an occupying force. That the Russians have invested so much in its capture speaks volumes about their poor strategy in this war.”
On top of that, they have exhausted men and materiel that might have been badly needed as and when the Ukrainians eye counteroffensives in the months to come.