Ukraine Situation Report: Bakhmut On The Brink
As Russian forces close in on Bakhmut, there is increasing evidence that a Russian victory here would likely be a pyrrhic one.
Amid rumors that Ukraine may now be conducting a tactical withdrawal from the besieged eastern city of Bakhmut and its environs, Russian forces are continuing to take heavy losses, according to multiple reports. For months now, Bakhmut and the surrounding area have been the scene of intense fighting, but as Russian troops and mercenary forces close around the city, Western officials have stressed that its loss would be more symbolic than a significant turning point in the conflict.
Reports suggest that both Russian and Ukrainian forces are now struggling with ammunition shortages as fighting in and around Bakhmut continues. At the same time, casualties on both sides are also clearly mounting. Remarkably, some of the pre-war civilian population remains in the battered city, with a few thousand inhabitants mainly holed up in basements, with no running water, electricity, or gas.
While it seems that Russia is redoubling its efforts to take Bakhmut, Ukraine is certainly not giving it up without a fight and continues to pour resources into defending it. According to the Ukrainian government, “more than 130 enemy attacks” were repelled in the Bakhmut region on Sunday alone.
As well as the huge psychological value to Russia of taking Bakhmut, especially as it struggles to make gains elsewhere, Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner Group private military company, has warned that failure to secure victory here could lead to a collapse along the entire Russian frontline.
Prigozhin has become a key figure in the fighting for Bakhmut, with his organization made up of mercenaries and prisoner-conscript soldiers leading the Russian offensive. At the same time, the Wagner boss has criticized the Kremlin for failing to provide adequate support, leaving his men with a lack of ammunition, for example.
Citing his comments about ammunition as the reason, Prigozhin has also claimed that his representative was denied access to the headquarters of Russia’s “special military operation” in Ukraine, in a further sign of increasing tensions between Moscow and the Wagner Group that’s played such an important role in the Russian war effort so far.
“On March 6, at 8 o’clock in the morning, my representative at the headquarters had his pass canceled and was denied access to the group’s headquarters,” Prigozhin said.
On the Ukrainian side, President Volodymyr Zelensky today held talks with senior commanders, with military leaders calling for continued defense of the city.
According to a statement on the website of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, “spoke in favor of continuing the defensive operation and further strengthening [Ukrainian] positions in Bakhmut.”
In his evening address today, President Zelensky described the fighting for the wider Donbas region as “one of the toughest battles. Painful and challenging.”
As the future of the city hangs in the balance, Western observers have been weighing up the significance of a possible Russian victory there.
While the cold winter weather had contributed to a deadlocked situation in the fighting, that is now poised to change, and many analysts now consider that Moscow’s forces hold the upper hand. In particular, Russian forces have targeted Ukrainian lines of communication to cut off defending forces from resupply efforts.
All this has led to a debate about whether it’s worth Ukraine continuing to take casualties and expend resources on what could be a lost cause, considering Bakhmut’s limited strategic value.
As the Associated Press reported today, “The city’s importance has become psychological — for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a victory there will finally deliver some good news from the battlefield, while for Kyiv the display of grit and defiance reinforces a message that Ukraine is holding on after a year of brutal attacks to cement support among its Western allies.”
Indeed, there has been some speculation that the Ukrainian forces are already undertaking a tactical withdrawal, with the aim of inflicting as heavy losses as possible on the Russian invaders in the process.
In a tweet, Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at the CAN thinktank in Arlington, Virginia, said that Ukraine’s defense of Bakhmut has been effective in terms of inflicting losses on the Russian side, but that the time had come to refocus elsewhere.
“I think the tenacious defense of Bakhmut achieved a great deal, expending Russian manpower and ammunition,” Kofman wrote. “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.”
Similar sentiments were echoed by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, which has suggested that Ukrainian forces could be better utilized by being deployed in easier-to-defend positions, despite the fact that an urban environment like Bakhmut typically favors the defender. The ISW is also of the opinion that Ukrainian forces are already engaged in “a limited fighting withdrawal” in eastern Bakhmut.
Most significantly, the U.S. Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, described Bakhmut as being mainly of symbolic importance while arguing that a Russian victory there would not necessarily change the course of the war to any significant degree.
“I think it is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value,” Austin told reporters, although he refused to predict if or when Bakhmut would be taken by Russian forces. “The fall of Bakhmut won’t necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight,” Austin added.
One interesting aspect of the situation around Bakhmut is how pro-Russian advocates of the war in Ukraine have changed their positions. According to the ISW, frustration among pro-Russian military bloggers, for example, has led them to revise their expectations, adopting more conservative positions compared to their more optimistic previous goals.
This is especially true when it comes to Russian efforts outside of Bakhmut, while huge amounts of manpower and equipment remain tied up in this long-running offensive.
According to the ISW:
“Russian forces currently do not have the manpower and equipment necessary to sustain offensive operations at scale for a renewed offensive toward Kramatorsk and Slovyansk, let alone for a years-long campaign to capture all of Donetsk Oblast. Meaningful Russian offensives around Vuhledar or elsewhere in western Donetsk Oblast are also highly doubtful.”
“Russia will have to mobilize considerably more personnel and fundamentally transform its military industry to be able to support such operations. The Russian military‘s likely continued failure to achieve a decisive victory in Donetsk Oblast will likely draw increasing ire from Russia’s ultranationalist pro-war community.”
According to the ISW again, “the Russian military will likely struggle to maintain any subsequent offensive operations for some months” and “Russian forces likely lack the capability to further reinforce the Bakhmut area significantly without pulling forces from another area of the front due to the lack of untapped reserves.”
Ultimately, whatever the outcome in Bakhmut, the fact that Russia has been forced to commit so much to this campaign also increases the possibility of Ukrainian counterattacks elsewhere.
Before we head into the latest news from Ukraine, The War Zone readers can get caught up on our previous rolling coverage here.
Bakhmut, of course, is not the only area of eastern Ukraine that’s seen fierce fighting of late. A report today from Ukrainian state broadcaster Suspilne states that “Russian troops carried out 29 strikes on Donetsk region and shelled 14 settlements in the region” in the last 24 hours. According to the same source, among the targets was the city of Kramatorsk, where a rocket attack reportedly destroyed a school and damaged multiple apartment buildings.
According to the latest update from the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, Russian forces launched 27 air strikes and four missile strikes in the last 24 hours and continue to target civilian infrastructure.
So far, there has been no evidence that Russia has acquired ballistic missiles from Iran, as had long been expected. Now, we may have some indication of why that hasn’t happened, namely that Moscow is concerned that turning to Tehran to replenish its ballistic missile stocks could, in turn, prompt the United States to finally approve the transfer of Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) short-range ballistic missiles to Ukraine.
According to Russian government sources, the Russian military hit a Ukrainian command center used by the Azov Regiment in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, although this hasn’t been independently verified.
Elsewhere, Russia has been seeking to capitalize on the progress that its military has made, with a rare and high-profile visit by Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu to Mariupol, the devastated coastal city in Donetsk Oblast that witnessed fierce fighting until it fell into Russian hands in May 2022.
With senior Kremlin figures only making very sporadic visits to occupied portions of Ukraine, Shoigu’s time in Mariupol — beginning on Saturday — provided an opportunity to show claimed Russian progress in rebuilding the city. The defense minister was seen “inspecting Russian reconstruction efforts of infrastructure,” including a medical facility, a rescue center, and a “new micro-district” of 12 five-story residential buildings.
Reflecting the still fragile security situation in Donbas and other areas partially controlled by Russia, the exact locations that Shoigu visited remained a closely guarded secret. According to the BBC Russian service, Shoigu was in Russian-occupied Ukraine today, “for the third day in a row”.
With Russia continuing to make slow progress in its ground offensive, it’s notable that the U.K. Ministry of Defense’s latest publicly released intelligence report focused on the continued re-equipment of the Russian Armed Forces with Soviet-era equipment.
According to the U.K. Ministry of Defense, the 1st Guards Tank Army, which it describes as “supposedly Russia’s premier tank force” is now likely in line to receive refurbished T-62s, having previously been expected to receive new-generation T-14 Armata tanks.
Introduced in 1961, the T-62 began to be returned to frontline service last year, with the U.K. Ministry of Defense assessing that approximately 800 of the Cold War-era tanks have been pulled from storage since the full-scale invasion began. Some of these have been fitted with soviet-era thermal sighting systems, which should allow them to better fight at night, but not all have been so equipped, as we have reported in the recent past.
The same intelligence report noted that Soviet-era BTR-50 tracked armored personnel carriers, a type that first entered Soviet service in 1954, have also been deployed in Ukraine in recent days.
In addition, we are also now seeing more Russian ‘Frankenstein vehicles,’ once again based on the MT-LB multipurpose tracked armored vehicle armed with different types of naval gun turrets. After the MT-LB armed with a 25mm 2M-3 gun mount that we looked at three days ago, a modification of the same vehicle has now appeared fitted with 14.5mm 2M-7 and 12.7mm DShK naval gun mounts.
Older weapons of other kinds also continue to show up in the hands of the Ukrainian forces, too, with a fascinating recent case in point being this Pulemyot Maxima PM1910 (also known as PM M1910) heavy machine gun — a design first introduced in 1910 and used by the Imperial Russian Army during World War I. While the 'Maxim' has been previously seen in the war in Ukraine, this example is noteworthy due to the addition of a distinctly modern sight, as well as a stock, and a suppressor.
While Russia continues to reintroduce to service older equipment, the European Union (EU) is reportedly close to agreeing on a plan to jointly procure ammunition for Ukraine, as well as to back-fill its own stockpiles. While the framework of such an initiative appears to be close to being finalized, it’s not yet clear how much ammunition will be involved and exactly how it will be funded.
Later this week, it’s expected that EU defense ministers will meet in Stockholm to discuss plans to accelerate the supply of 155mm artillery shells to Ukraine, as well as to order more ammunition of this type for its own members.
Meanwhile, it appears that a U.K.-led international fund to provide weapons for Ukraine has run into delays. The International Fund for Ukraine, set to be worth around $625 million, was promised to offer “low bureaucracy,” but so far only around $240 million has been allocated and it’s reported that the first arms it would fund may only become available to Ukraine this summer.
Ukraine is apparently moving closer to deploying its U.S.-provided M2A2 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs) in combat, which promise to provide a significant increase in firepower and capability for its troops. More than 60 of the IFVs were shipped from Charleston, South Carolina, earlier this year, and training is now well underway in Poland, using U.S. Army vehicles, as the video below indicates.
There have been more reports of long-range Ukrainian strikes against Russian targets on the other side of the border. A ‘kamikaze drone’ of an unknown type appears to have destroyed a Russian observation tower in the Russian city of Bryansk over the weekend. The tower was apparently being used to monitor activity on and around the border and the mission is said to have been carried out by Kraken, part of Ukraine’s special forces.
In Russia’s Belgorod region, meanwhile, local reports claim that three Ukrainian missiles were shot down by air defenses overnight. Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of the Belgorod region, claimed the attempted strikes in a post to his Telegram channel this morning and said that an investigation into the incident was ongoing.
Within Ukrainian territory, meanwhile, the Ukrainian Air Force reportedly conducted 12 strikes on Russian forces in the last 24 hours, while artillery and missile forces hit three control points, four “focus areas,” and one air defense system.
Air defense systems of the Ukrainian Armed Forces have been busy as well as of late, with the recent video below providing a relatively rare look at the British-supplied Stormer short-range air defense system (SHORADS), armed with the Starstreak High-Velocity Missile (HVM), in action.
Russian air defenses are also apparently being strengthened at certain strategic locations within the country. Last week, Ukrainian drones reportedly struck a Rosneft oil depot in the town of Tuapse in the Krasnodar region on the Black Sea coast. Now, it seems the harbor there is being defended by a Pantsir-S1 (SA-22 Greyhound) combined gun/missile point-defense system, to reduce the chances of any similar attacks in the future.
That’s it for now. We’ll update this story when we have more report.
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