Photo: Soldier at the Battle of Bakhmut, November 2022.
The following is the latest weekly update on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, written by John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Bakhmut Under Seige
The situation in Bakhmut is “extremely tense,” Colonel-General Oleksandr Syrsky, commander of Ukraine’s eastern grouping of forces, acknowledged on Tuesday following a visit to the besieged city.
In recent days, Russia appears to have taken the towns of Berkhivka and Yahidne, located northwest of Bakhmut, as well as the Stupky micro-district in northern Bakhmut. Berkhivka and Yahidne lie near Ukraine’s last remaining road into the city, which Russian forces seek to envelop from the north and south.
After Syrsky’s visit, Ukrainian troops reportedly blew a nearby dam to slow Russian advances and counterattacked near Berkhivka and Yahidne. However, there’s been no visual evidence of major flooding, and it doesn’t appear Ukraine managed to regain significant ground. Ukrainian forces will likely have to retreat to avoid encirclement — a prospect the Ukrainian command has reportedly been contemplating for weeks.
On Tuesday, a soldier from Ukraine’s 93rd Mechanized Brigade said the situation in Bakhmut “has never been so difficult,” while a Russian source claimed some Ukrainian troops were retreating across the Bakhmutovka River, which splits the city. A Russian war correspondent earlier indicated some of Ukraine’s best units had already withdrawn from the city.
So far, however, Ukrainian forces are still hanging on. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister announced Tuesday that Syrsky had decided to transfer reinforcements to the city. A Reuters journalist on the ground confirmed that fresh troops were flowing in. Their task may be to stabilize the situation sufficiently to ensure an orderly withdrawal.
In Bakhmut, Relative Rates of Attrition Matter More Than Territorial Gains
Bakhmut is the gateway to Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, the biggest cities still under Ukrainian control in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region. But Russia’s battered military is ill-equipped to exploit Bakhmut’s fall. Ukrainian troops will simply fall back to their pre-prepared secondary defensive line.
Russian forces may succeed in pushing northward to the towns of Siversk and Bilohorivka, in the process shoring up their position against potential Ukrainian advances deeper into Luhansk Oblast. But taking Slovyansk and Kramatorsk will likely remain out of reach, particularly since Russia lost its footholds at the nearby logistics hubs of Lyman and Izyum last year.
Much like with Russia’s campaign in the Donbas last spring and summer, the most significant aspect of the battle for Bakhmut will likely be Russia’s and Ukraine’s relative rates of attrition. During its Donbas campaign, Moscow achieved meager territorial gains at the expense of significant losses of men, equipment, and munitions. These losses, combined with those suffered during the battle for Kyiv, left Russia’s then relatively small force in Ukraine unable to defend all its occupied territory. The result: successful Ukrainian counteroffensives that drove Russia out of Kharkiv Oblast and across the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast.
In this sense, the battle for Bakhmut carries risks for both sides. For Kyiv, men and materiel lost defending Bakhmut could detract from Ukraine’s much-anticipated counteroffensive this spring, which could liberate territory with greater strategic and operational significance. In recent months, Kyiv has poured troops into the Bakhmut area, redeploying some of its best units to hold the city. Ukraine has reportedly echeloned its forces in the Bakhmut area so as to spare its better units from the brunt of the fighting, and Russia has likely suffered far more casualties.
Russian casualties around Bakhmut mainly comprise poorly trained convicts and mobilized personnel, while Ukraine is losing better-trained troops. Although Washington has urged the Ukrainians to deprioritize Bakhmut to focus on the spring counteroffensive, Kyiv has been reluctant to relinquish the city, which has come to symbolize Ukrainian resistance.
For Moscow, the primary risk stems from the expenditure of ammunition, particularly artillery. Russia’s military, like Ukraine’s, relies heavily on artillery. But Russia seems to be running low on artillery ammunition after having fired enormous volumes over the past year. Moscow’s tactical gains at Bakhmut will be pyrrhic if they leave Russia without enough ammunition to thwart Ukraine’s looming counteroffensive.
China to Russia’s Rescue?
Moscow has sought to redress this shortage by looking abroad. While Iran and North Korea have reportedly supplied some ammunition, the quantities seem to be relatively small. But there’s another power that could help: China.
The Chinese have already aided Russia’s war machine since Moscow invaded Ukraine a year ago. In addition to providing satellite imagery for Russia’s Wagner paramilitary group as well as body armor and helmets, China has become the chief lifeline for imports needed by Moscow’s defense industry. Russian firms dodge Western export controls by procuring sensitive products through China-based traders and shell companies, while Chinese firms have continued to supply Russia with military and dual-use goods.
Now, Beijing is “strongly considering providing lethal assistance to Russia,” according to Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Media reports indicate Beijing may send not only so-called “suicide drones” but also artillery ammunition. If supplied in significant quantities, Chinese ammunition could allow Russia to employ a higher rate of fire or prolong the war, potentially helping Moscow frustrate Ukrainian advances or even occupy more territory.