Opinion

Why Russia — losing everywhere else in Ukraine — is still trying to capture Bakhmut

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

The war in Ukraine hasn't exactly been going Russia's way for the past six weeks. After making slow but steady advances in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region over the summer, Russian forces lost ground quickly in a Ukrainian counteroffensive first in northeastern Kharkiv province, then in southern Kherson, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to launch a deeply unpopular and shambolic mobilization effort to generate new forces. 

Even as Russian troops are trying to regroup behind new defensive lines in Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Kherson provinces, however, private mercenaries from Russia's Wagner Group plus troops from the separatist Donetsk People's Republic have been slowly battling their way toward the city of Bakhmut, in Donetsk province, between Moscow's losses in Kharkiv and Kherson. 

"There once may have been a logic to Russia's focus on capturing Bakhmut," the next step westward after Moscow took nearby Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, BBC News reports. But that was in the summer, and now "Russia has largely been forced to change from being an offensive to a defensive army." Presumably, the forces trying to break through entrenched Ukrainian lines into Bakhmut could be better used elsewhere. So why is Russia still so intent on capturing Bakhmut?

Bakhmut is the key to the rest of Donetsk

Bakhmut, with a prewar population of about 70,000, is a hub of roads and railway lines in a war where control of supply routes has been of critical importance. "Russia likely views seizing Bakhmut as a preliminary to advancing on the Kramatorsk-Sloviansk urban area, which is the most significant population center of Donetsk Oblast held by Ukraine," Britain's Ministry of Defense assesses.

Russia is desperate for a win

"Bakhmut is one of the few places where Russia is on the advance — incremental, small gains," BBC News correspondent Jonathan Beale reports from Bakhmut. "They're trying desperately to change the narrative here — and the reality that most Russian forces in Ukraine are on the retreat."

"Perhaps Russia's military is desperate to claim any sort of offensive victory," Sebastien Roblin writes at Forbes, but it's certainly true that "pro-Russian bloggers and propagandists excitedly seize on reports of progress toward Bakhmut, emphasizing the rosy news (from their perspective) amidst grim reports coming from all other fronts. On multiple occasions, pro-Russian sources have falsely reported the fall of Bakhmut." 

Russian sources claimed Monday "that Ukrainian forces are experiencing heavy losses in the Bakhmut area and discussed the possibility of Ukrainian withdrawals from settlements surrounding Bakhmut," but Ukraine's military says "such Russian claims are not true" and Ukrainian forces are holding the line, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) research group reports. "Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin also reportedly stated that Russian speculations about Ukrainian withdrawals were just rumors and that Wagner units continue to fight Ukrainian forces in and around Bakhmut."

This is a Wagner power play

Prigozhin may have ulterior motives for highlighting Russia's one offensive fight in Ukraine and even for offering a "realistic portrayal of the situation in Bakhmut, noting that Ukrainians are unwilling to surrender," ISW assesses

"Prigozhin and Wagner-affiliated social media outlets are increasingly commenting on the ineffectiveness of traditional Russian military institutions and societal issues," and his "narratives have the ingredients to appeal to the Russian President Vladimir Putin's nationalist constituency that has long called for oligarchs to finance supplies for the armed forces, demanded transparency about what is really going on at the front, and criticized Russian higher military institutions for their failures on the frontlines," ISW writes. "While Prigozhin does not directly oppose or criticize Putin, his growing notoriety within the nationalist community may undermine Putin's 'strongman' appeal by comparison."

You won't hear Prigozhin or other Putin lieutenants "criticizing the 'commander-in-chief' himself," but "anger at Putin is the next logical step if the military defeats continue," Leonid Bershidsky writes at Bloomberg Opinion. In the end, "this is Putin's war, but different people have different ideas about how to fight it for him — and, of course, for themselves. That is hardly conducive to victorious action, and it undermines Putin's control — not just of events on the battlefield, but also of the propaganda space, which he has owned for years."

"Prigozhin and the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, have openly declared war against the defense minister, Putin loyalist Sergei Shoigu, and his top generals," seeing "opportunity in the chaos" of the Kremlin's "failing war" and "botched mobilization," The Guardian reports.

One former senior defense official told The Guardian that Shoigu and Prigozhin have been feuding since at least 2014, and that Shoigu recently fired a deputy defense minister who had reportedly funneled lucrative contracts to Wagner. "Prigozhin will now be out for revenge against Shoigu," the official said, describing Prigozhin as "a machine in the bad sense of the word," a person with "no morals, no conscience, and no hobbies."

Ukraine will take the win — or loss

Ukraine's military points out that whoever's leading the Kremlin's forces, Russia isn't assured to capture Bakhmut. Col. Serhiy Cherevatyi, a spokesman for Ukraine's Eastern Command, told BBC News he doesn't think Russia has the numbers or equipment to take the city, but even if they do, Ukrainian defenders will make them pay a high price. "When we retreated from Lysychansk we exhausted the enemy," he said.

"Despite the huge strain on Bakhmut's defenders, Ukraine's military seems to believe Russia's assault there is a barbed lodestone bleeding resources away from more critical fronts," Roblin writes at Forbes. "Some commanders have admitted they're willing to risk losing the city if it comes at sufficiently heavy cost to Russian forces and tolerable casualties for its own," and if their effort frees up Ukrainian forces for a successful offensive elsewhere, "it may finally compel Russia's military to give up its ceaseless assaults, giving Bakhmut's defenders brief respite."

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