Bloody siege of Bakhmut poses risks for Ukraine The.jpgw1440

Bloody siege of Bakhmut poses risks for Ukraine

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Ukraine faces tough decisions about how far to drag its military into a protracted battle for the besieged city of Bakhmut, while Kyiv prepares for a new counteroffensive elsewhere on the frontline that requires the preservation of weapons, ammunition and experienced fighters requires.

Russia has escalated its assault in the region in recent days, unleashing fierce fighting that has underscored the high cost of the battle. Russian mercenaries and freed convicts from the Wagner group invaded the neighboring salt mining town of Soledar and moved closer to Bakhmut, whose conquest they eluded for months despite their superior firepower and willingness to sacrifice troops.

“If we kill five out of 10 of their soldiers at once, they will be replenished to 10 over the course of several hours,” said Andriy Kryshchenko, a deputy battalion commander of a National Guard unit stationed south of the city.

“Although they charge in small groups, people are constantly replenished, which gives them the opportunity to charge positions very often – sometimes five, six, seven times a day,” Kryshchenko said.

The Ukrainian military must now decide how many more forces and how much more ammunition and weaponry to muster to continue defending Bakhmut — a city that many military analysts say has relatively little strategic importance to the broader battlefield but is politically fraught is symbolic for both sides.

The decisions come as Ukrainian officials – awaiting an influx of new armored vehicles promised by the US, France and Germany – say they are preparing to launch a new counteroffensive in the coming months to try to wrest more territory from the Russians. Success in this campaign would be crucial for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to demonstrate sustained momentum on the battlefield and garner national and international support in a war now in its eleventh month.

“They need to have non-combat units that they equip and train for this offensive,” said Michael Kofman, a Russian military analyst at Virginia-based CNA. “So Bakhmut is a fight that I think was beneficial for Ukraine, but the question now is how much the cost of fighting Bakhmut could affect Ukraine’s overall strategy for this winter or spring.”

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As of mid-2022, Wagner leader Yevgeniy Prigozhin was banking on capturing Bakhmut to show the Kremlin that unlike Russia’s besieged military, which was withdrawing from positions, his private mercenary army was still able to take the initiative and new ones conquering territory on the battlefield.

Many military analysts viewed the move as strategic madness, watching as the Russians suffered heavy casualties and squandered droves of mostly mercenaries and ex-convicts, as well as ammunition and weapons, in pursuit of a city of relatively little strategic importance in the larger war.

For months, the Ukrainians seemed to be able to wear down the Russians over a questionable target. According to a senior US official, who spoke anonymously to discuss sensitive military details, Moscow threw tens of thousands of soldiers into combat and lost thousands of those men in the Battle of Bakhmut.

But in recent weeks, the Ukrainian city that was 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 declare a much-needed victory and gain momentum in a war in which its forces have not captured a major city since last summer. For Ukrainians, Bakhmut has been described by officials as a “fortress” and an icon of superhuman resistance, making even a calculated retreat politically vulnerable.

Zelensky visited the city late last year and, in a subsequent speech before Congress, compared it to the Battle of Saratoga, the turning point of the Revolutionary War. He presented Vice President Harris and then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a flag signed by city defenders. Ukrainians regularly repeat the slogan “Bakhmut holds” in the latest show of steadfast resistance in the face of a brutal Russian war.

Ukraine is under pressure to launch a new counteroffensive in the coming months – and to repel any new campaigns by a Russian force, reinforced with newly mobilized soldiers – at a time when the attrition is depleting its reserves of trained fighters and ammunition the test.

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

The United States and its allies have in recent days approved fresh military aid to Ukraine and are preparing to send armored fighting vehicles to aid Ukrainian forces in a new military campaign. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday the fierce fighting around Bakhmut showed “how important it is that we increase our support, our military support, to Ukraine.”

The US and Germany will send armored fighting vehicles to Ukraine

Senior Ukrainian military officials regularly emphasize that trained and motivated fighters are the most valuable resource in Kiev’s arsenal and strive to plan operations to ensure the lowest possible casualties. But Bakhmut has become a brutal drudgery as Russia sends thousands of fighters to the front lines, testing Ukrainian forces with wave after wave of personnel.

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

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

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

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

Officials in Kyiv, from Zelenskyy onwards, have regularly stressed the need to fight for every piece of Ukrainian territory and have stated that they are unwilling to surrender 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 home. We are fighting 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 wisely: if circumstances call for tactical maneuvering, the top military leadership will surely draw the right conclusions and act.”

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

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

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

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

Ukrainians “are not giving up the ghost,” the official said. “They deploy their powers appropriately.”

The senior US official warned against completely dismissing Bakhmut or neighboring Soledar as non-strategic locations that Kyiv could simply abandon, noting that the salt and gypsum mines add economic importance to the area. In theory, the Russians could use the deep salt mines and tunnels to protect equipment and ammunition from Ukrainian missile attacks. Moscow has also provided the city with import.

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

The official added: “Bakhmut will not change the war.”

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