The Ugly Battle of Bakhmut Is Nearing Its End | Opinion

Bakhmut, a mid-sized city in eastern Ukraine that used to boast approximately 70,000 residents, isn't an important piece of real estate. But Ukraine and Russia have been fighting pitched battles in the vicinity since the summer, and the city has taken on symbolic significance for the combatants. For the Russians, Bakhmut represents the biggest prize since June, when their forces captured Severodonetsk and Lysychansk after weeks of heavy bombardment. For the Ukrainians, Bakhmut is the epitome of its resistance against the Russian onslaught—yet one more example of the inspiring David and Goliath story that has categorized the war in the minds of many. To underscore how important the defense of Bakhmut is for Kyiv, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky handed over a battle-flag from Ukrainian troops stationed in the city to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after his address to a joint session of Congress last December.

Yet the battlefield dynamics in this particular area of the 600-mile frontline is slowly moving in Russia's direction. Russian forces, including the mercenaries and jailhouse cannon-fodder that make up the Wagner Group, are close to surrounding the remaining Ukrainian defenders. The vise is getting tighter. The only major highway to the west is in range of Russian artillery fire, forcing the Ukrainians to use country roads to resupply and evacuate the wounded. The Ukrainians have reportedly withdrawn from the eastern part of the city. Yevgeny Prigozhin, chief of the Wagner Group, is claiming control over parts of Bakhmut, a small consolation prize after months in which his mercenaries have been cut down.

Despite Zelensky's vow to fight for as long as it takes, it's likely only a matter of time before Bakhmut is surrendered to the Russians. Even so, Zelensky doesn't intend to just hand the city over. "We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further," Zelensky told CNN's Wolf Blitzer, referring to Russian forces. "They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction." Of course, this is precisely what the Russians are hoping for; Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who has taken a beating by hardliners such as Prigozhin, is confident Ukraine's defensive lines in the Donbas will wear thin after Bakhmut is taken.

The reality, however, could be very different. The Ukrainians haven't been sitting on their hands all this time waiting for Russia to move westward. Instead, Kyiv has spent months building additional defensive lines to the west, using the hilly terrain in the area to its advantage. Assuming the Russians take Bakhmut, they will likely try another offensive in the direction of Kramatorsk. But such operations will be enormously costly for an army that has already sustained 200,000 casualties. Up to 30,000 Russian troops may have been killed in the battle of Bakhmut alone over the past six months. Unless Russia can throw an unlimited number of convicts into the meat grinder, nobody should assume Moscow has the capacity to take the entire Donbas region.

The war, now in its second year, is at the stage where the most awful type of attrition is playing out. Russian President Vladimir Putin has a lot more men at his disposal and could execute another troop mobilization if the situation is desperate enough to require one. The Ukrainians can't compete with Moscow in terms of numbers. Kyiv lost some of its best elite units in the early months of the conflict, and many of those now fighting heroically were rushed into battle with less than ideal training (to be fair, the same goes for Russia). Ukraine is experiencing extensive strain due to the war, having lost 30 percent of its economy last year, and it's hard to see the situation getting any better as the fighting goes on. Zelensky is also at the mercy of his foreign supporters; some of the very weapons platforms, ammunition, and artillery shells Ukraine needs for future counteroffensive are in increasingly short supply in the West.

 Ukrainian soldiers look towards Russian positions
Ukrainian soldiers look toward Russian positions while atop an anti-aircraft gun on Feb. 14, 2023, near Bakhmut, Ukraine. John Moore/Getty Images

Ukrainian officials must take all of these factors into account as they make plans in the days, weeks, and months to come. It is precisely because of this long, inconclusive attritional battle ahead why some military analysts, like Michael Kofman of the Center for Naval Analyses, are questioning whether sticking it out in Bakhmut is the best use of the Ukrainian army's resources. As Kofman tweeted after a recent trip to the city in late February, "I think the tenacious defense of Bakhmut achieved a great deal, expending [Russian] manpower and ammunition. But strategies can reach points of diminishing returns, and given [Ukraine] is trying to husband resources for an offensive, it could impede the success of a more important operation."

Kofman isn't alone. The Biden administration has been urging Ukraine to preserve its manpower and equipment in order to boost the chance of a successful counteroffensive later in the spring. Part of this obviously entails giving up Bakhmut, regardless of how emotionally draining such a pullout would be. The Ukrainian army's tactical withdrawal from some of the destroyed city, days after reaffirming its intention to defend it for as long as it takes, suggests that the military leadership is coming around to the U.S. perspective.

The hard decision to sacrifice Bakhmut will be terrible for Ukraine's morale. But it's probably the right call given the uncertain future and resource constraints Ukrainian officials are forced to handle.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a syndicated foreign affairs columnist at the Chicago Tribune.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.