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Doubts are growing over the wisdom of defending the shattered frontline city of Bakhmut against relentless Russian attacks, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is digging in and insisting his top commanders are united in maintaining an exhausting defense that has dragged on for months.
Fighting around Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donbas escalated dramatically late last year, with Zelenskyy beating the Russians for sending men – many of them convicts recruited by the Wagner mercenary group – to near-certain death in “waves of flesh”. Bakhmut, now the bloodiest battle of the war, offers a vision of a near World War I conflict, with trenches flooded and landscapes ravaged by artillery fire.
In recent weeks, as Ukraine’s forces were nearly encircled in a salient, shell-less and with massive casualties, there has been increased speculation both in Ukraine and abroad that it’s time to retreat to another line of defense – a cut that would not be widely seen as a huge military setback, although Russia would claim a symbolic victory.
However, in a speech on Wednesday evening, Zelensky explained that he remained in favor of fighting it out in Bakhmut.
“There was a clear position from the entire General Staff: strengthen this sector and inflict as much damage on the occupier as possible,” Zelenskyy said in a video address after meeting with Ukraine’s Supreme Commander Valeriy Zaluzhnyy and other senior generals to start a battle. discuss. this is raising concern among Ukraine’s allies and drawing criticism from some Western military analysts.
“All members have taken a common position with regard to further holding and defending the city,” Zelensky said.
This is the second time in as many weeks that the president of Ukraine has mentioned the support of his top commanders. Ten days ago, Zelenskyy’s office issued a statement in which it also stressed that Zaluzhnyy and Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian ground forces, agreed with his decision to hold on to Bakhmut.
The long-running logic of the Ukrainian forces has been that Russia suffered disproportionate casualties, allowing Kiev’s forces to crush the invaders ahead of a Ukrainian counter-offensive expected soon in the spring.
City of glass, brick and rubble
Criticism is growing among some in the Ukrainian ranks – and among Western allies – about continuing the nearly nine-month-long battle. The unrest was first muted and expressed behind the scenes, but is now coming out.
On social media, some Ukrainian soldiers have expressed bitterness at their plight, though they say they will do their duty and persevere as ordered. “Bakhmut is a city of glass, bricks and rubble, which crackle underfoot like the fate of people who fought here,” one tweeted.
A lieutenant on Facebook commented, “There is a catastrophic shortage of grenades.” He said the Russians dug in well and it took five to seven rounds to hit an enemy position. He complained about equipment problems and said, “Improvements – improvements have already been promised, because everyone who has a mouth makes promises.” But he cautioned that his comments should not be taken as a plea for a withdrawal. “WE WILL FILL OUR DUTY TO THE END, WHATEVER IT IS!” he concluded sadly.
Iryna Rybakova, a press officer with the 93 of Ukraineed brigade, also gave a taste of the risks facing medics in the city. “Those people who go back and forth to Bakhmut on business are taking an incredible risk. Everything is difficult’ she tweeted.
The main strategic question is whether Zelenskyy is stubborn and whether the battle has become more of a test of willpower than a tactically necessary fight that will bleed out Russian forces before Ukraine’s major counterattack.
“When you travel around the front, you hear a lot of grumbling that people aren’t sure if the reason they’re holding Bakhmut is because it’s politically important” rather than tactically significant, said Michael Kofman, a US military analyst and director of the Program. Russia Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses.
Kofman, who traveled to Bakhmut to observe the savage battle firsthand, said on the War on the Rocks podcast that while the battle paid off for the Ukrainians a few months ago, helping it maintain a high kill ratio , there are now diminishing returns from staying engaged.
“What is happening now in the battle is that the course of the attrition is favorable for Ukraine, but not nearly as favorable as before. The casualties on the Ukrainian side are quite significant and require a significant number of replacements on a regular basis,” he said.
The Ukrainians have acknowledged that they also suffered significant losses at Bakhmut, that Russia is moving closer and closer to encirclement. However, they claim that the Russians lose seven soldiers for every Ukrainian life lost, while NATO military officials put the kill ratio at more than five to one. But Kofman and other military analysts are skeptical, saying both sides are now taking about the same number of casualties.
“I hope the Ukrainian command really, really, really knows what it is doing in Bakhmut,” tweeted Illia Ponomarenko, the defense reporter for the Kyiv Independent.
Last week, Zelensky received the support of retired US generals David Petraeus and Mark Hertling for his decision to remain involved with Bakhmut on the grounds that the battle caused far more Russian casualties. “I think it’s the right thing to do at the moment to use Bakhmut to get the Russians to impale themselves on it, given the extraordinary losses the Russians are taking,” retired general and former CIA director Petraeus told POLITICO.
But the situation has changed in recent weeks, said Rob Lee, a former US Navy officer who now works at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the death toll has risen. no valid reason anymore stay involved. “Bakhmut is no longer a good place to exhaust Russian troops,” he tweeted. Lee says Ukrainian casualties have risen since Russian troops, made up of Wagner mercenaries and Russian airborne troops, moved into the north of the city in late February.
The Russians are determined to secure a victory at Bakhmut, just six miles southwest of the salt mining town of Soledar, which was overrun two months ago after the Wagner Group sacrificed thousands of untrained fighters there too.
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has hinted several times that he sees no tactical military reason to defend Bakhmut. He said the eastern Ukrainian city was of symbolic rather than operational importance and that its fall would not mean that Moscow had regained the initiative in the war.
Ukrainian generals have pushed back such comments, saying there is a tactical reason to defend the city. Zaluzhnyy said on his Telegram channel: “It is the key in the stability of the defense of the entire front.”
Midweek, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials had been urging the Ukrainians to withdraw from Bakhmut since late January, fearing that the depletion of their own troops could affect Kiev’s planned spring offensive. Ukrainian officials say there is no risk of an impact on the offensive as the planned troops are not fighting in Bakhmut.
That has prompted some Ukrainian troops to complain that Kiev sacrifices poorly trained reservists in Bakhmut, using them as expendables in much the same way the Russians have done with Wagner conscripts. A commander of the 46th Brigade – known as Kupol – told the newspaper that inexperienced conscripts are being used to make up for losses. He has now been relieved of his post, much to the anger of his soldiers, who have praised him.
Kofman worries that the Ukrainians are not playing their military strengths at Bakhmut. Located in a punch bowl, the city is not easy to defend, he noted. “Ukraine is a dynamic army” and is good if it can “carry out a mobile defense”. He added: “Fixed trenches, trying to concentrate units there, placing people one after another in positions previously hit by artillery don’t really play into many of Ukraine’s advantages.”
“They have built a stubborn defense. I don’t think the battle is nearly as favorable if it’s portrayed somewhat publicly, but more importantly, I think they’re somewhat at risk of being surrounded there,” he added.