Much of the small city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine lies in ruins after months of bloody trench warfare. Tens of thousands are dead and any resident who had the ability to flee did so. Russian invaders have surrounded the city on three cities and Western officials urged Ukrainian defenders — so far without success — to fall back to more easily-defendable lines.
But Kyiv has no plans to pull out of Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials say it’s not just a matter of what the loss would mean for the public’s morale. The city’s defense, they say, is linked to a planned spring offensive that could commence within weeks as the weather warms.
Ukrainian forces are hoping to build on the spectacular successes of a fall sortie that broke through a weak link in Russian lines and pushed the invading forces out of almost all of the Krakhiv Oblast in the east. After retaking the city of Lyman in Donetsk Oblast in October, Ukrainian forces met tougher Russian resistance and a winter counterattack by Russian troops and mercenaries centered on Bakhmut.
Both sides have been bloodied by the fighting for Bakhmut, but Ukrainian commanders say the planning for a renewed spring offensive to reclaim land in the Donbas has not been affected.
Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground troops, said Ukrainian soldiers in the east — including Bakhmut — are battling the Russians so Kyiv can consolidate enough troops and weapons for what’s coming next.
“It was necessary to buy time to accumulate reserves and start a counter-offensive, which is not far off,” the general told Ukrainian reporters in Kyiv March 11.
The stakes — political and military — could not be higher.
Despite a disastrous first year of fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be betting that his smaller adversary cannot long sustain a war of attrition, and that popular support in the U.S. and Europe will inevitably weaken if the fighting produces a stalemate.
And the government of Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelenskyy is desperate to revive the momentum and morale-lifting success of the fall’s fighting, even as Russia is rushing new troops to the fighting and has had months to shore up its defensive lines.
“It’s easier to train someone to stand in a trench and defend and shoot someone coming at them, but it’s much more difficult to train them to do offensive operations,” Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute recently told the Kyiv Independent news website.
“It takes a lot more courage and unit cohesion [and] it takes better leadership and command and control,” he added.
Although Ukrainian forces surprised the Russians last fall, it is much less of a guessing game now. Almost telegraphing its intentions, the Zelenskyy government has even commissioned a new “Offensive Guard,” made up of eight assault brigades, to spearhead the coming fight.
Military analysts and Western military officials say Ukrainian commanders, now fortified with dozens of new NATO-supplied tanks and with Soviet-era jet fighters on the way, have effectively two options if they seek to push back Russian and separatist forces: Push south across the Dnipro River toward Crimea, which Russia has held and militarized since it seized the peninsula in 2014, or advance more to the east and then south to cut off Russia’s coveted “land bridge” along the Black Sea coast linking Crimea to Russia proper.
John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, agreed that a Ukrainian counter-offensive is likely imminent.
Mr. Hardie said Ukraine’s advance would likely focus south toward the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya region or Mariupol in the Donetsk Oblast, located on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov.
“But we don’t really know,” he said, adding that Ukraine’s southern region is both economically and strategically very important to Kyiv.
The Pentagon early this month hosted Ukrainian generals at the U.S. military base in Wiesbaden, Germany for several days of “tabletop” exercises to game-plan the coming spring offensive, although publicly U.S. officials say Kyiv is calling the shots on war strategy.
“No one is sitting there telling the Ukrainians, go left or go right or do this or do that. That is not the job of the international community,” U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told reporters earlier this month. “All we’re doing is setting up the framework and the mechanics to allow the Ukrainians to self-learn, to learn against a situation, or various scenarios.”
Russian military commanders have likely begun rationing artillery ammunition due to the shortages that have erupted in recent weeks along several parts of the front line. It has probably been a key reason why no Russian combat formation has been able to generate significant offensive action against Ukraine, British military officials said last week.
“Russia has almost certainly already resorted to issuing old munitions stock which was previously categorized as unfit to use,” UK intelligence officials said in their daily assessment of the battlefield.
In need of supplies
A Ukrainian offensive would probably not begin until after Kyiv receives more of the military firepower promised by the U.S. and other NATO countries, with many predicting an early May kick-off date. The Defense Department said the U.S. is committed to providing Kyiv with sufficient firepower to fight the Russians.
“We’re continuing to do everything we can to ensure we’re meeting Ukraine’s needs,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday. “That will continue to be our focus. There is still a tough fight ahead, particularly as we go into the spring and summer.”
But, Mr. Hardie said it’s not inconceivable for Ukraine to launch an attack using what weapons it has on hand.
“So far in this war, Ukraine has really not conducted successful large-scale maneuver operations except where Russian forces were very thin,” he said. “But, I’ve learned throughout this war not to bet against the Ukrainians. They’ve consistently proven pessimists wrong.”
Some Russian military analysts said Ukrainian forces could face minimal resistance in a drive toward the south, unlike other areas of the front line. Meanwhile, a member of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, called on military officials to develop anti-drone warfare capabilities to defend critical ground lines of communication connecting occupied Crimea with mainland Russia, according to the Institute for the Study of War think tank.
Retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the priority is not only helping Ukraine prepare for future offensive operations but blunting Russia’s ability to launch its own drive further into Ukraine. He estimated that Kyiv could be ready to move out by May or early June and “hopefully” take the land bridge that connects Russia to Crimea.
Speaking before the Atlantic Council think tank in February, Mr. Petraeus said President Vladimir Putin believes Russia can better endure hardships than Ukraine, the rest of Europe, or the U.S.
“We have to prove him wrong in that regard. We have to hasten that moment when Putin is willing to enter into meaningful negotiations,” he said.
The Zelenskyy government has kept up a constant stream of requests of more arms and aid from the U.S. and its allies, reflecting the calculation that the next few months could determine the fate of the war.
Despite the heavy losses, Mykhailo Podolyak, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy, called the fight for Bakhmut a “strategic success” and told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that Ukraine’s counter-attack is coming.
“We will wear out the Russians and then concentrate elsewhere. We need long-range missiles,” Mr. Podolyak said.