The bloody siege of Bakhmut poses a risk to Ukraine

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Ukraine faces tough choices about how much deeper to drag its army into a protracted battle for the besieged city of Bakhmut, while Kiev prepares for another counter-offensive elsewhere on the front that will require weapons, ammunition and skilled fighters.

Russia has escalated its attack in the area in recent days, unleashing ferocious fighting that has underscored the high cost of the battle. Russian mercenaries and freed convicts from the Wagner group pushed into the neighboring salt mining town of Soledar and moved closer to Bakhmut, whose capture has eluded them for months despite an advantage in firepower and a willingness to sacrifice troops.

“If we kill five out of ten of their soldiers at once, they will be replenished to ten in a matter of hours,” said Andriy Kryshchenko, deputy battalion commander of a National Guard unit stationed in the south of the city.

“Although they storm in small groups, people are constantly replenished, which allows them to storm positions very often — sometimes five, six, seven times a day,” Kryshchenko said.

The Ukrainian military must now decide how much additional force and how much ammunition and weapons it can use to continue defending Bakhmut – a city that many military analysts believe has relatively little strategic importance to the wider battlefield, but has become laden with political symbolism for both sides.

The decisions come as Ukrainian officials — in anticipation of an influx of new armored vehicles promised by the US, France and Germany — say they are preparing for another counter-offensive in the coming months to try to reclaim more territory from the Russians. to win. Success in that campaign would be critical for President Volodymyr Zelensky to demonstrate continued momentum on the battlefield and maintain domestic and international support in a war now in its eleventh month.

“They need to have units outside of combat that they equip and train for this offensive,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst with the Virginia-based CNA. “This is why Bakhmut is a battle that I think was beneficial for Ukraine, but now there are questions about how much the cost of fighting for Bakhmut could hinder Ukraine’s overall strategy for this winter or spring.”

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As of mid-2022, Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin set his sights on conquering Bakhmut to show the Kremlin that, unlike Russia’s beleaguered army, which retreated from positions, its private mercenary army remained capable of taking the initiative and conquer new territory on the battlefield.

Many military analysts viewed the move as strategic folly, as they watched as the Russians suffered heavy casualties, wasting droves of mostly mercenary and ex-captive troops, as well as ammunition and weapons, in pursuit of a city of relatively little strategic significance to the wider war . .

The Ukrainians seemed to succeed for months in inducing Russian attrition over a questionable target. Moscow has thrown tens of thousands of troops into battle, and has lost thousands of those men in the battle for Bakhmut, according to a senior US official who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive military details.

But in recent weeks, the Ukrainian city, once home to 70,000 people, has been infused with additional political symbolism on both sides. For the Russians, its capture would allow Moscow to win a much-needed victory and claim momentum in a war in which its forces have not taken a major city since last summer. For the Ukrainians, Bakhmut has been hailed by officials as a “fortress” and an icon of superhuman resistance, making even a calculated retreat politically charged.

Zelensky visited the city late last year and, in a subsequent speech to Congress, compared it to the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point in the Revolutionary War. He presented a flag signed by city defenders to Vice President Harris and then Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Ukrainians regularly repeat the slogan “Bakhmut stands firm”, as the latest sign of unwavering resistance in the face of a ruthless Russian war.

Ukraine is under pressure to launch a new counter-offensive in the coming months — and fend off new campaigns by a Russian force backed by newly mobilized soldiers — at a time when attrition is testing its reserves of trained fighters and ammunition.

The top general in the United States, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A. Milley, said in November that Russia and Ukraine have each seen about 100,000 of their troops killed or wounded since the conflict began in February 2022. toll that underscores the challenges of a war of attrition.

The United States and its allies have approved new military aid to Ukraine in recent days, in preparation for sending armored fighting vehicles designed to aid Ukrainian troops in a new campaign. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday that the fierce fighting around Bakhmut showed “how essential it is that we step up our support, our military support for Ukraine”.

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Top Ukrainian military officials regularly stress that trained and motivated fighters are the most precious resource in Kiev’s arsenal, and that they are doing everything they can to plan operations to minimize losses. But Bakhmut has become a relentless slog as Russia dumps thousands of fighters at the front and tests Ukrainian troops with wave after wave of personnel.

A Ukrainian commander, who recently fought in the city and spoke on condition of anonymity to be candid about the battle, described “major casualties” within his unit.

“As for the symbolism, to each his own,” said the commander. “But we’ve lost many friends defending this city, so we don’t want to give it up now. But maybe a temporary withdrawal could save some of our people.”

Andriy Miheychenko, the 42-year-old commander of a unit in Ukraine’s 53rd Mechanized Brigade, who fought in Bakhmut until the end of December, described the Russian mercenaries as a “cheap resource” – they died in very large numbers while proving relatively ineffective.

“Prigozhin and those guys, how many months have they been fighting?” he said. “But Bakhmut is still ours. … On the other hand, it is a pity, because we are trading the lives of our soldiers and officers – very good officers – for the lives of these Russian convicts.”

Officials in Kiev, from Zelensky down, have regularly stressed the need to fight for every bit of Ukrainian territory, noting that they are unwilling to abandon Ukrainian citizens to Russian occupation.

“For us, Bakhmut is the same corner of our country as Soledar, Kherson, Melitopol, Kharkiv or Dnipro. It’s our homeland. We fight and will fight for every meter of our land,” said Yuriy Skala, the commander of an intelligence battalion currently fighting in Bakhmut. “But we will fight smartly: if the circumstances require a tactical maneuver, the top military leadership will certainly draw the right conclusions and actions.”

“I will support the Supreme Commander’s decision to maneuver tactically and create a new line of defense if it becomes clear that there are too many casualties,” added Skala. “We are not Russians. We are Ukrainians, and human life is the highest value for us.”

Mason Clark, a senior analyst and Russia team leader at the Institute for the Study of War, said he would be surprised if Ukrainian military officials allowed their forces in Bakhmut to undergo a degree of attrition significant enough to undermine their ability to to launch a counter-offensive elsewhere. , noting that commanders have demonstrated astute operational planning.

The Ukrainian military is aware of the need to conserve troops for an upcoming counter-offensive, the senior US official said.

“They’re still fighting, but they’re not fighting with the same amount of resources as they originally did because they also share sustainability concerns here,” the official said.

The Ukrainians are not giving up the ghost, the official said. “They’re pooling their forces properly.”

The senior US official warned against completely dismissing Bakhmut or neighboring Soledar as non-strategic places that Kiev could simply give up, noting that the salt and gypsum mines give the area economic significance. Theoretically, the Russians could use the deep salt mines and tunnels to protect equipment and ammunition from Ukrainian missile strikes. Moscow also endowed the city with imports.

“To a certain extent, Bakhmut is important [Ukraine] because it is so important to the Russians,” the senior US official said, noting that control of Bakhmut will not have a huge impact on the conflict or jeopardize Ukraine’s defensive or offensive options in the eastern Donbas region.

The official added, “Bakhmut is not going to change the war.”

Khurshudyan reported from Kiev. Kamila Hrabchuk in Kiev contributed to this report.

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