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Zelensky says Ukraine is reinforcing Bakhmut positions, not withdrawing. Here's why that may pay off.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said late Monday that after meeting with Ukraine's top commander and the commander of eastern forces, all three agreed on "continuing the defense operation and further strengthening our positions in Bakhmut," the flattened city in eastern Ukraine that Russian forces have been trying to capture for eight months. The losses have been tremendous, especially on the Russian side. "Do not withdraw," Zelensky said in his nightly address, summarizing the clear directives from the generals. "Reinforce."

Russia's Wagner mercenaries and regular Russian forces have surrounded Bakhmut on three sides, though a Ukrainian counteroffensive over the weekend reinforced the main supply — and escape — route. Ukrainian forces have completely withdrawn "from the roughly one-third of the city's area that sits on the eastern bank of the Bakhmutka River," The Wall Street Journal reports, and "are concentrating on holding the central and western parts of the city, with easily defensible positions." The fighting is so close-quartered that hand-to-hand combat is not uncommon, Ukrainian soldiers say.

"Ukraine has been able to use Bakhmut as a kill box to grind down the vast numbers of newly mobilized Russian soldiers" and Wagner forces, The New York Times reports. Wagner sends waves of untrained recruits to their certain death, and when Ukraine troops are exhausted and their positions exposed, the elite Russian troops try to gain territory. "It's a working tactic," acknowledged Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, the commander of Ukraine's eastern ground forces. "It's based on constant advancement, however slight, and takes absolutely no account of human losses."

Several Western analysts have suggested that Ukraine would be better off withdrawing from Bakhmut to conserve troops and ammunition for a planned spring offensive. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Monday that Bakhmut "is more of a symbolic value than it is strategic and operational value," and a potential Ukrainian pullback "won't necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight." 

Austin is right that "Bakhmut is not intrinsically significant operationally or strategically," and losing it would not be "of major operational or strategic concern to Ukraine," the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank assessed. "But Ukraine's fight for Bakhmut has become strategically significant," because Ukraine is now grinding down not just Wagner prison recruits but also "elite elements of the Wagner Group and from Russian airborne units." 

Wagner may not have enough men and ammunition to capture Bahkmut, ISW added. But either way, degrading Wagner's forces — its best troops and its "cannon fodder" — and elite Russian forces in an arena so favorable to Ukraine means "they will not be available for more important fights" to come.