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Bakhmut: What will be the outcome of the battle?

Alexandra Ivanova
March 3, 2023

Russian troops have made Bakhmut their primary objective in Donbas. How long can the Ukrainian army defend the city, and what direction is the war likely to take in the coming weeks and months?

Aerial view of a settlement of red buildings amid snow-covered gardens. In the middle, smoke is rising from a recent explosion.
The city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine is heavily contestedImage: Libkos/AP/picture alliance

Bakhmut is of great strategic importance to both the Ukrainian and the Russian forces, says Marina Miron, a research fellow at the Centre for Military Ethics at King's College London. Miron believes that, if Russian troops capture the city, they will advance further, perhaps toward Kramatorsk.

"They would control important roads, cutting off the Ukrainian armed forces and making the defense much harder for them," says Miron. She warns that this would also undermine the morale of the Ukrainian troops, and could lead to Western partners losing confidence in the capabilities of the Ukrainian army.

Headshot of retired colonel Ralph Thiele
Ralph Thiele says the effort expended on Bakhmut cannot be justified militarilyImage: privat

Ralph Thiele, a retired German colonel who has served on the personal staff of NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe, agrees. "The Ukrainian side is basically compelled — also by its Western partners — to deliver successes. There has to be some sort of constant public justification for the huge amount of support being given to Ukraine," says Thiele.

He also emphasizes the psychological importance of defending Bakhmut. "People must somehow be motivated to hang in there. That is a signal that goes out to the whole of Ukraine — to the civilian population, as well as to soldiers in other places," Thiele says. The amount of effort the two sides are putting into conquering and defending the city is not really justifiable, he adds.

Headshot of Mike Martin in a white shirt, wearing an earpiece
Military expert Mike Martin says Putin is intent on achieving his stated war aimsImage: DW

Mike Martin, a researcher at King's College London, says Russia is persisting in its efforts to capture Bakhmut because it corresponds to Putin's stated war aim of, in his words, "liberating the Donbas." Martin explains: "If you look at the way the roads and the rail networks are arranged, there are two bigger settlements to the west of Bakhmut, but still in the Donbas: Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. And in order to take those bigger cities, which he needs to do to complete his strategic goal, he needs to take Bakhmut first."

Who has the best chance of winning the battle?

In Ralph Thiele's estimation, Ukraine is less likely to win the battle for Bakhmut. The Russian army has already encircled the city. "There's a small strip four kilometers wide that's still accessible for people to flee, or to bring in reinforcements and supplies. But four kilometers is nothing, and the Russians are positioned all around it in a horseshoe formation, and they're trying to push the ends of this horseshoe together."

Thiele adds that the Russians also outnumber the Ukrainians near Bakhmut. "If we look at the overall situation, we see that there is far more on the Russian side, be it armored vehicles, tanks, artillery or planes," he says. The Ukrainians, meanwhile, are still waiting for Western military aid to arrive.

As far as aid is concerned, Thiele is not very optimistic. "When we see that the whole of Europe produces less ammunition for Ukraine in a month than Russia uses in a day, we can see how difficult it's going to be to get them the support they need."

He points out that the issue of tanks is also very difficult. "In public debate, people keep saying 'yes' to tanks. But the tanks have to get there somehow. They have to be driven there, but many of the bridges can't bear that weight. So it's difficult to get them there. If a tank breaks down or requires maintenance, it can't be done on the spot; it may have to be driven back 900 kilometers to Poland or Slovakia."

Possible Ukrainian offensive

Markus Reisner, a colonel in the Austrian army, comments: "Success in Bakhmut would mean the Russians would effectively succeed in occupying another piece of land. But that would not mean a breakthrough into the heart of the territory, because they will come up against the next line of defense." He says that, following successful campaigns near Kharkiv and Kherson, Ukraine decided relatively quickly to launch a third offensive, from Zaporizhzhia toward Melitopol, but that pressure on the Ukrainian forces near Bakhmut has meant Kyiv has had to keep redeploying forces there.

Close headshot of Markus Reisner in front of an Austrian flag
Markus Reisner believes the Ukrainian army is preparing for another counteroffensiveImage: BMVL

According to Reisner, the Ukrainian army is currently preparing eight brigades and looking for a suitable place to launch an offensive. This could be in the region north of Melitopol. If successful, it could cut Russian forces off from Crimea, and those near Zaporizhzhia and Kherson could be cut off from the supply line across the Crimean bridge. "The Russians would then have very different concerns, namely how to supply their units in the region, rather than how to continue attacking in Donbas," says Reisner.

However, Gustav Gressel, a fellow of the European Council on Foreign Relations who specializes in Russia and defense policy, believes that now is not the right time for a Ukrainian counteroffensive. "If you want to mount a counteroffensive, you have to assemble capabilites away from the frontline and the fighting, and then organize them for an attack. That would be risky at this stage," he says. "Even if Ukraine pushes through Russian lines and expands its control, the Russians would still have strong reserves and a large number of troops they can throw into the battle." These, he explains, could be used to man lines in the rear, or to attack the Ukrainians from several directions at once.

Headshot of Gustav Gressel, pale shirt, dark jacket
Gustav Gressel would advise Ukraine to waitImage: DW

"If we wait a few months until the Russian offensive potential is exhausted, and Russia starts to eat up its reserves to fuel the current offensive, then Ukrainian forces will have more room to expand their control as soon as they have penetrated the Russian front," Gressel believes. "That way, they can liberate more terroritory with the same amount of losses, and with the same amount of vehicles used."

Might a ceasefire this year be possible?

"Everyone has an interest in this war coming to an end now, and of course there is pressure on both sides — especially on Ukraine, and perhaps now also on Russia through India and China," says Ralph Thiele. However, he believes that when people talk of "defeating Russia," this is "just a turn of phrase." Russia still has the capacity to greatly escalate the war — and not just with nuclear weapons. "This includes hypersonic weapons, which we don't even notice, but which make it possible for Putin to place a bomb on every desk in the world, without us being able to defend ourselves against it," Thiele warns.

He says it is now the West's job to prevent an escalation. "We must see how we can convince him to back down. That would essentially be done by those who support him, which would be China or India, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and South Africa. That's a large group, and they could really pressure Russia." As for Ukraine, Thiele says every military success would help to strengthen its position before a ceasefire.

As for the likely course of the war in the near future, Mike Martin of King's College London does not believe a lack of soldiers would be a reason for Ukraine to stop resisting. "I think the stopping point for this war for the Ukrainians will either be when they win, or when the West stops supplying them with weapons," he says.

This article was originally written in Russian.