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Doubts are growing about the wisdom of holding the devastated frontline city of Bakhmut against a relentless Russian attack, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is digging in and insisting his top commanders are united in maintaining an attritional defense that lasted for months.
Fighting around Bakhmut in the eastern Donbas region escalated dramatically late last year, with Zelenskyy slamming the Russians for throwing in men – many of them convicts recruited by mercenary groups of Wagner – until almost certain death in “waves of meat.” Now the bloodiest battle of the war, Bakhmut offers a glimpse of the conflict near World War I, with flooded trenches and landscapes blasted by artillery.
In recent weeks, as Ukrainian forces is almost surrounded in a conspicuous, short of ammunition and facing mounting casualties, there was heightened speculation both in Ukraine and abroad that the time had come to return to another defensive line — a retrenchment that was no longer extensive would be seen as a massive military setback, although Russia would claim a symbolic victory.
In an address on Wednesday night, however, Zelenskyy explained that he remained in favor of slogging it out in Bakhmut.
“There was a clear position of the entire general staff: Strengthen this sector and inflict the maximum possible damage on the occupier,” Zelenskyy said in a video address after meeting with Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyy and others more senior generals to discuss a conflict that is fueling increased anxiety among Ukraine’s allies and drawing criticism from some Western military analysts.
“All the members expressed a common position regarding the further holding and defense of the city,” Zelenskyy said.
It is the second time in as many weeks that the Ukrainian president has cited the support of his top commanders. Ten days ago, Zelenskyy’s office issued a statement also emphasizing that Zaluzhnyy and Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, agreed with his decision to hold tight to Bakhmut.
The longstanding logic of the Ukrainian armed forces is that Russia has suffered disproportionately high casualties, allowing Kyiv’s forces to crush the invaders, ahead of an expected Ukrainian counter-offensive shortly, in the spring.
City of glass, brick and debris
Criticism is growing among some in Ukrainian ranks — and among Western allies — about continuing the nearly nine-month conflict. The anxiety was muted at first and expressed behind the scenes, but now comes out in the open.
On social media, some Ukrainian soldiers expressed bitterness at their situation, although they said they would do their duty and stay as ordered. “Bakhmut is a city of glass, brick and debris, crunching underfoot like the fate of those who fought here,” tweeted one.
A lieutenant on Facebook said: “There is a huge shortage of shells.” He said the Russians were well dug in and it took five to seven rounds to hit an enemy position. He complained of equipment challenges, saying “Improvements — improvements have been promised, as everyone with a mouth promises.” But he cautioned his remarks should not be taken as a call for a retreat. “WE WILL FINISH OUR DUTY TO THE END, WHATEVER IT IS!” he sadly concluded.
Iryna Rybakova, a press officer at Ukraine’s 93street brigade, also gave a taste of the dangers faced by medics in the town. “People who go back and forth to Bakhmut on business are taking an incredible risk. Everything is difficult,” he tweeted.
The main strategic question is whether Zelenskyy is becoming stubborn and whether the fight has become more a test of wills than a tactically necessary engagement that will bleed Russian forces before a major Ukrainian counter-strike.
“Traveling to the front you’ll hear a lot of whispers where people aren’t sure if the reason they’re holding Bakhmut is because it’s politically important” as opposed to tactically significant, according to Michael Kofman, an American military analyst and director of the Russian Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses.
Kofman, who traveled to Bakhmut to observe the fierce battle, told War on the Rocks podcast that while the conflict paid dividends for the Ukrainians a few months ago, allowing it to maintain a high kill ratio, there are now diminishing returns from continued involvement.
“What is happening in today’s match is that the attrition exchange rate is favorable to Ukraine but it is not as favorable as before. Casualties on the Ukrainian side are quite significant and require a large amount of replacements on a regular basis,” he said.
The Ukrainians admit they are also suffering heavy casualties in Bakhmut, which Russia is edging closer and closer to encircling. They say, however, the Russians lose seven soldiers for every Ukrainian life lost, while NATO military officials put the kill ratio at more like five to one. But Kofman and other military analysts are skeptical, saying both sides are now suffering roughly the same rate of casualties.
“I hope the Ukrainian command really, really, really knows what it’s doing in Bakhmut,” tweeted Illia Ponomarenko, the Kyiv Independent’s defense correspondent.
Last week, Zelenskyy received support for his decision to remain committed to Bakhmut from retired US generals David Petraeus and Mark Hertling on the grounds that the conflict is causing a higher casualty rate in Russia. “I think at this point using Bakhmut to allow the Russians to anchor themselves here is the right course of action, given the extraordinary casualties the Russians are taking,” retired general and former CIA director Petraeus told POLITICO.
But in the last two weeks the situation has changed, said Rob Lee, a former US Marine officer and now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the kill ratio is is no longer a valid reason to stay engaged. “Bakhmut is no longer a good place to attrit Russian forces,” he tweeted. Lee said Ukrainian casualties have increased since Russian forces, made up of Wagner mercenaries as well as Russian airborne troops, pushed north of the town at the end of February.
The Russians are determined to score a victory in Bakhmut, just six miles southwest of the salt-mining town of Soledar, which was captured two months ago after the Wagner Group sacrificed thousands of untrained fighters. it’s there too.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has indicated several times that he sees no tactical military reason to defend Bakhmut, saying the eastern Ukrainian town is more symbolic than operational significanceand its fall does not mean that Moscow has regained the initiative in the war.
Ukrainian generals rejected such claims, saying there was a tactical reason to defend the town. Zaluzhnyy said on his Telegram channel: “This is key to the stability of the defense of the entire front.”
Midweek, the Washington Post reported that US officials have been urging the Ukrainians since the end of January to withdraw from Bakhmut, fearing that the depletion of their own troops could affect Kyiv’s planned offensive in the spring. Ukrainian officials said there was no risk of an impact on the offensive because the troops slated to be deployed were not fighting in Bakhmut.
That has prompted some Ukrainian troops to complain that Kyiv is sacrificing untrained reservists in Bakhmut, using them as expendable in much the same way the Russians did with Wagner’s conscripts. A commander of the 46th brigade — with the call sign Kupol — told the newspaper that inexperienced draftees were being used to plug losses. He was now removed from his post, which angered his soldiers, who praised him.
Kofman worries that the Ukrainians are not playing to their military strength in Bakhmut. Located in a punch bowl, it’s not easy to defend the town, he says. “Ukraine is a dynamic military” and excels when it “conducts a mobile defense.” He added: “Fixed entrenchments, trying to concentrate units there, putting people in positions that were hit by artillery before are not really playing to Ukraine’s many advantages.”
“They put up a solid defense. I don’t think the conflict is as favorable as it has been portrayed to the public but more importantly, I think they are a bit at risk of being trapped there,” he added.