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Bakhmut, the brutal battle that could decide the Ukraine War

By Todd Davis 

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors. View more opinion on ScoonTV. 

We look back upon historical events from the perspective of achieved results. The landings at D-Day were a step toward liberating Europe from the Nazis. When viewed from the kaleidoscope of history, a fait accompli, they were certain in their execution and result. And yet, had we been an Allied soldier about to hit the Normandy beaches, victory would have seemed less certain. 

Another historical phenomenon is that events coalesce around a city or battle that may appear to be another standard objective but end up changing the course of the entire conflict. Stalingrad was such a battle. Originally a city to be captured by the German Sixth Army at the end of its summer offensive, the conflict eventually became a defining battle of World War 2. 

Events in the Russo-Ukraine war have transpired to give us another such battle, this time at Bakhmut, a nondescript city in the Donbass that no one in the West had ever heard of prior to the recent conflict. Russia and Ukraine are locked in a death struggle for the city, or what remains of it, after months of combat. It’s not an exaggeration to say that whoever triumphs in this battle will go on to win the war. 

For Ukraine, Bakhmut is the key lynchpin in their Donbass defense. If Bakhmut goes, so goes its entire line. For Russia, if it can’t take Bakhmut, it cannot liberate the Donetsk People’s Republic. It’s hard to see a path to victory for the Russian Federation without this objective.  

Bakhmut, a city with a pre-war population of around 71,000, is a heavily fortified strongpoint anchoring the so-called Zelensky Line. It serves as a vital transportation hub linking Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. As long as Ukraine holds Bakhmut, Russia cannot advance further west toward the Dnieper. 

The Zelensky Line is the last fortified defensive position before the Dnieper. Bakhmut falling to the Russians would have a similar effect to the capture of Popasnaya in the Severodonetsk region. This city was heavily contested as a key to Ukraine’s defensive position there. After Russian Federation forces won the battle for Popasnaya they were able to launch the “Flower of Popasnaya” offensive that led to the full liberation of Luhansk.  

Bakhmut is even more important than Popasnaya. Its capture would leave the road to the Dnieper open. It’ll turn a World War One-esque battle heavily dominated by artillery and the gradual reduction of strongpoints and trench lines into an armored breakthrough where Russian Federation forces branch out driving for the Kramatorsk, Sloviansk, and the great river beyond. This breakthrough offensive could shatter the center of the Ukrainian army (AFU), necessitating a general retreat to the Dnieper where it would dig in to hold the river line, ceding control of the Donbass and much of eastern Ukraine to the advancing Russian forces. 

The political ramifications around the fall of Bakhmut would be enormous. Taking the city will lead to the full liberation of the Donetsk People’s Republic. With both the DPR and LPR liberated, Putin’s proclaimed goals will have been fulfilled. Russia will have an open path to drive deep into the heart of Ukraine, should it choose to do so, and either continue the war or open negotiations from a position of complete strength. 

In the West, the importance of Bakhmut is slowly beginning to filter through the corporate media. A wave of articles was published recently, led by the New York Times, that reported on the battle. The newspaper even pointed out the heavy, lopsided losses the AFU has taken over the last four months in the fighting around the city. These articles provide a soft landing for the loss of Bakhmut, preparing the Western audience, inundated with stories about Ukrainian victories, for this coming shattering defeat.  

Victory and defeat. That is what is being decided in Bakhmut. The AFU knows the importance of the city. Thousands of soldiers have been poured into its defenses. After Russia withdrew from Kharkov, Ukraine sent soldiers to Bakhmut. After Russia withdrew from Kherson, Ukraine sent soldiers to Bakhmut. It has become a meat grinder. Frederick the Great once said, if you defend everything, you defend nothing. Russia consolidated its lines and has strong, nearly impenetrable positions on both flanks of the front.  

The battle for Bakhmut has been going on for three to four months depending on how you recognize the official start. Many have predicted its fall to Russia. These have not come to pass, so it’s logical to ask why would this latest crisis be any different. But changes in the tactical situation can be attributed to Russian reinforcements and reorganization. When the war started, there was little-to-no command and control over the multiple fronts in Ukraine. Since Ukraine is a massive country with the conflict front lines extending over 2000 miles at one point, Russian coordination was deficient. 

All this changed in October when General Sergey Surovikin was appointed commander of all Russian forces in Ukraine. Now, not only do all regional commanders report to Surovikin but he also has been empowered to make decisions on a grand strategic scale. Surovikin’s decision to abandon Kherson, knowing that Russia would take a political hit, even as it strengthened the Russian position on the left flank attests to both his insight and the trust Vladimir Putin has put in him.  

Prior to November, Russia was attacking Bakhmut with a contingent smaller than the AFU. An attacking force almost always must be larger than a defending force to succeed, especially when a battle is being fought in siege-like conditions. Further, assaults on Bakhmut were being carried out by DPR militia and PMC Wagner. While these units fought extremely well, gains were limited, especially when the AFU reinforced Bakhmut in September. 

Still, Surovikin has established a unified command in Bakhmut and brought in thousands of Russian reservists. Russia now outnumbers Ukraine at Bakhmut.  

Another factor in Russian success is the growing logistical problems in Ukraine. Simultaneous to the action at Bakhmut, Russia has spent the last month degrading the power and logistics network in Ukraine. These strikes have been so successful that it is anticipated that the majority of power, water, and heat will have been knocked in most of Ukraine for this upcoming winter. This will create a massive refugee crisis. The other effect is a grand disruption of the supply chain to the AFU. A modern army cannot fight effectively without power, especially one supplied by NATO. Ukraine no longer has a functioning organic military industry. Kiev isn’t producing tanks, howitzers, or 155mm shells. Everything must be brought in from NATO countries. 

Every aspect of fighting in Ukraine needs NATO support. Kiev cannot launch attacks without AFVs and tanks from the West. Munitions have been a serious, potentially fatal problem for the AFU. The battle of Bakhmut is being waged primarily with artillery and drones. Battlefield attrition among these weapons has spread throughout the AFU. US Defense officials report that ⅓ of the howitzers sent to Ukraine at any given time are out of commission. The M777 has proven to be an unreliable piece of equipment on the Eastern European battlefield prone to breaking down and needing constant barrel replacement. Ukraine has nearly exhausted its supply of 155mm shells. Unable to meet demands for production increases on these, the United States has told Ukraine to cut back on its usage of 155mm rounds. It’s a ludicrous request until you realize there is no way to resupply them. “A day in Ukraine is a month or more in Afghanistan,” defense expert and former NATO Assistant Secretary General Camille Grand told the New York Times.  

Complete reliance on NATO to continue the war effort is proving untenable. The New York Times reported that 20 of the 30 NATO countries have exhausted their stockpiles of weapons for Ukraine. Germany and France are in precarious positions with French President Macron visiting the United States in December. Of all the European leaders, Macron has been the most pragmatic and has kept open a line of communication with the Kremlin. This might be his last chance to extricate his country from the Ukrainian sinkhole pulling down his European allies.  

With Ukraine forced to cut back on its own artillery usage, Russia has both a manpower and firepower advantage in Bakhmut. The results have been significant. In the last week, Russia has taken Kurdyumivka, Spornoye, Ozaryanovka, Zelenopoyle, and Andriivka. Minor villages to be sure, but positional strongpoints around Bakhmut that strangle the supplies going to the AFU. Russia has cut a vital rail link into Bakhmut denying Ukraine one of the major transportation hubs for reinforcing the city. Russia now has fire control over Bakhmut and is able to bring artillery down on the defenders from three directions. Ukrainian positions within the city are becoming more and more untenable. Retreat is Zelensky’s best option. 

Losing the battle of Bakhmut will be a major defeat for the AFU. Bakhmut will have cost Ukraine more of its soldiers’ lives than any other battle in the war. Strategically, losing Bakhmut has dire, potentially fatal consequences for the entire Ukrainian position east of the Dnieper.  

Politically, losing Bakhmut makes the liberation of the DPR inevitable. All of these consequences will present NATO with hard choices. There are no easy answers for the European alliance.

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Todd Davis

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