Has Ukraine made a mistake in refusing to withdraw from Bakhmut?

Ukraine says its future may depend on the relentless fighting currently raging around Bakhmut, but there are growing divisions between Kiev officials and some Western military analysts over how best to handle what could be a defining period in the conflict.

For months, Ukraine’s defense of the eastern city has held back and weakened Russian troops, while at the same time being a powerful symbol of the country’s resistance.

As Moscow’s attack intensifies, a number of observers have questioned whether Kiev’s decision to reinforce the area rather than withdraw is motivated more by a political desire to avoid a high-profile defeat than by military logic .

A long-speculated Ukrainian withdrawal from the battered city has not materialized, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his military leaders betting instead that they can buy critical time and benefits for a future counter-offensive by doubling down.

Ukrainian officials have doubled down on Bakhmut’s defense, defying expectations of a retreat.Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

The Russian forces, led for months by mercenaries from Wagner’s private military company and reinforced by newly mobilized reservists, have intensified their winter campaign to take the city, despite massive casualties.

It is an important prize for the Kremlin and winning it would be Russia’s first major victory in almost a year.

This relentless pressure has left Ukrainian troops surrounded on three sides and facing an increasingly dire situation.

“Ukrainians should have pulled out weeks ago,” defense analyst Konrad Muzyka, the director of Poland-based Rochen Consulting, which specializes in Russia and Belarus, told NBC News.

“There’s just no point in defending the city right now,” he said Muzyka, who recently visited the area with colleagues.

He outlined a position that is increasingly common among some close observers of the conflict: Bakhmut’s defense was crucial both strategically and symbolically, but the situation has deteriorated to the point that it may now be more expensive than it’s worth.

Kiev was now suffering such heavy losses, Muzyka said, that it could undermine its own hopes of successful advances in the future.

Russia’s winter offensive was held up by staunch Ukrainian defenses and muddy, frozen conditions.Sergey Shestak/AFP – Getty Images

Only one main road from Bakhmut is now under Ukrainian control, with the mining center once home to about 80,000 reduced to artillery craters and muddy trenches.

But Ukrainian officials have doubled down on their strategy, insisting that holding the city was in fact critical to their future operations, even as losses mount on both sides.

Ukraine’s future depends on the outcome of the fighting raging in Bakhmut and nearby areas, Zelenskyy said this week, underscoring his commitment to hold out in the city.

“There was a clear position from the entire command: strengthen this sector and destroy the occupiers as much as possible,” he said in his nightly video address on Tuesday.

Officials in Kiev have insisted that the battle both limits the Russian advance by forcing Moscow to throw troops and equipment into Bakhmut and lays the groundwork for future Ukrainian advances by giving their own reserves more time to prepare.

Their position gained public support in Washington on Wednesday.

“Ukraine has stationed the Russian armed forces in that city and they are imposing a high cost on the Wagner Group and the Russian regular army,” the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, told a news conference.

NBC News has contacted the Ukrainian government for further comment.

Moscow, for its part, hopes that Bakhmut can open a path to conquer the rest of the surrounding region. The city is located in the northeastern part of Donetsk province, half of Ukraine’s industrial Donbas heartland, which has become the central target of the Kremlin’s offensive.

With that in mind, some analysts said Ukraine’s approach made sense.

“The idea of ​​the Ukrainians is not just to kill as many Russians as possible, but to fix their troops there so they can’t deploy them anywhere else,” said Rajan Menon, a director of the Washington-based Defense Priorities think tank. well aware of his position in Bakhmut and took a calculated risk.

“The question is whether you can stay on the line and inflict damage at a price that the commanders in Ukraine deem acceptable,” Menon said, “is it necessarily a disastrous thing to do?”

The battle for Bakhmut has become one of Europe’s most intense battles since World War II.Roman Chop / AP

Russian forces have relentlessly bombarded the city with artillery and waves of infantry assaults, pushing more and more new recruits and even some of their best troops into battle alongside the ex-prisoners and mercenaries of the Wagner group.

Analysts say Wagner, led by long-time Putin ally and oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, has claimed dozens of victims for every tiny piece of land seized.

They now control most of eastern Bachmut, with a river flowing through the city becoming the front line, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

Ukraine’s limited resources could therefore be better spent elsewhere, Muzyka and others argue, with the determination to hold on to an increasingly dangerous position in Bakhmut also threatening Ukraine’s ability to defend other positions in the area.

Bakhmut has become a fortress of symbolic value, similar to Mariupol, with its survival a point of national pride. But the struggle there also weighs heavily in Russia, where Prigozhin has emerged as the face of the war and entered into a public feud with Moscow’s military leaders.

The Wagner chief has accused the Kremlin’s top leadership of under-supplying its fighters with ammunition and playing off the ferocity of Ukraine’s defense efforts as he pushes for a high-profile victory.

Securing Bakhmut is now critical for Prigozhin, experts said.

Bakhmut has been relentlessly bombed, forcing civilians to flee or spend their days sheltered in cellars.Roman Chop / AP

“He’s actually managed to turn this very challenging struggle into something that actually benefits him,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the founder and head of the political analysis agency R. Politics.

But Ukraine’s persistence has taken a heavy toll on the Russians.

In a video shared by Sota, an independent Russian media outlet, a group of women who say they are the mothers and wives of men from a division sent east to fight beg President Vladimir Putin for those who were “thrown” to bring home. like flesh to storm the fortified regions.” NBC News has not verified their claims.

However, officials in Kiev may not be the only ones hoping that the brutal fighting continues.

Some of Moscow’s military leaders would like Ukraine to maintain its defensive efforts, Stanovaya suggested, so that Prigozhin sees his troops exhausted and thereby weakens his influence.

“It is useful that Ukrainians decide to stay, because in this way they will waste all of Wagner’s people,” Stanovaya said.

The Wagner offensive on Bakhmut “appears to be nearing its peak,” the ISW said Wednesday in an update supporting that idea. “Losses of manpower, artillery and equipment” are likely to limit the group’s “ability to capture substantial territory in battles over urban areas,” the ISW added.

Russian advances in the area in the future will likely depend on the army’s own reserves, the ISW said.

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