While the world awaited—and continues to wait as of the time of writing—for the expected Ukrainian spring counteroffensive as summer approaches, Ukraine has launched a new local counteroffensive around Bakhmut, seemingly starting on the 12th, making relatively modest gains in the outskirts of the city. However, recently, it seems as though the majority of the city has finally fallen into Russian hands, with Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin proclaiming the capture of the city on the 20th as well as promising to transfer control to the official Russian armed forces on the 25th of May. While the situation around Bakhmut is still somewhat hazy, Ukrainian officials have made some subtle statements suggesting Ukraine maintains minor positions in Bakhmut in spite of the almost complete occupation of the city by Russia and their declared victory. However, it seems those pockets have finally been evacuated or destroyed. With the battle of Bakhmut largely over, it is worth reflecting on this centerpiece of the war's coverage.
Despite the extensive coverage and months of hard fighting, Bakhmut is not a strategically significant location, and there is little indication presently that this has changed. Bakhmut is something that seems to have been largely latched onto, especially after the possibility of quickly breaking through to Slovyansk and Kramator, the keys to the rest of Donetsk. Even total victory for the Russians does not provide them a particularly advantageous position for further offensives or to resist a future counterattack by the Ukrainian armed forces. The fighting around Bakhmut was a grueling slog for both sides, fought by tens of thousands of soldiers over many months for singular city blocks and individual buildings as the city was reduced to rubble from endless shelling. (1) Russian victory is a textbook example of a Pyrrhic Victory and one that was almost immediately criticized extensively by Russian military bloggers and politicians alike. Even with this victory, little has changed beyond the horrible attrition of material, manpower, and morale that the fighting had brought. The conclusion hardly produced a will-shaking effect, such as the battles it has been compared to, like Stalingrad or Verdun. It was a pyrrhic victory largely claimed by the Mercenary Group, Wagner, the battlefield that brought them to prominence as a private fighting force able to succeed where the conventional forces had failed. Nevertheless, this was a costly promotion which is almost certainly the reason for the hasty withdrawal, especially with the shadow cast by the impending Ukrainian counteroffensive, something supported by the two-month force reconstitution promised for Wagner by Prigozhin. Even this withdrawal has been delayed until June, likely because of the difficulty of repositioning such an exhausted force still in contact with the enemy.
1: US President Joe Biden has alleged that Russian casualties are around 100,000, permanent and non-permanent. Bear in mind the vested interests of the US government.
The battle for Bakhmut has been a potent reminder of how effective an organized and determined entrenched force can be in the defensive. It has, in many ways, symbolized the fighting across Ukraine, particularly the character of this conflict. Outside of the brief glimpse of maneuver from the Russian advances in the chaotic early days of the invasion and the Ukrainian advance against the thinly dispersed Russian lines, this war has been one of positioning and attrition. Something worth keeping in mind as the world awaits the Ukrainian counteroffensive. Russian defenses behind the front line are of a similar character to those in Vuhledar and Bakhmut, which had held them back before, multiple supporting defensive positions with minefields and other field fortifications. Moreover, the fighting around Bakhmut has lacked an important element of firepower, airpower, and though it has been of minor relevance, it may not be for the counteroffensive where Ukraine will be leaving behind its prepared positions after months of attrition on their air defense resources, something the US has stated repeatedly to be an absolute priority for resupply. It seems unlikely the fighting in Bakhmut will significantly influence the counteroffensive in terms of Ukrainian capacities however the effects on Russian fighting forces may well be, striking when the Wagner group is off the line or while the army is still refilling the positions left behind would certainly be to their advantage. The Ukrainian military—assuming it employs its reserve forces as expected—shouldn’t suffer too greatly in the short term from the loss during the counteroffensive as the forces to be used in that operation have not seen frontline service allowing Ukraine to commit them without reducing frontline strength and as fighting continues, Ukraine has gained a better understanding of Russian capabilities which will make them more willing to commit to more extensive operations.