ISW's Thoughts on Bakhmut.
Ukrainian authorities indicated that Ukraine will continue to defend Bakhmut for now. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated at the end of the day on March 6 that he has ordered reinforcements to Bakhmut. This announcement follows Zelensky’s March 6 meeting with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief General Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Commander of Ukrainian Ground Forces Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi where both commanders recommended the continued defense of Bakhmut and asked Zelensky to strengthen Ukrainian forces in the area. Ukrainian Presidential Advisor Mykhailo Podolyak similarly stated on March 6 that the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut thus far has “achieved its goals” and been a “great strategic success.” Statements made by Ukrainian officials regarding Bakhmut are likely meant in part to respond to the continued concern expressed by some Americans regarding the costs of Ukraine’s continued defense of Bakhmut. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated on March 6 that he would not view a Ukrainian withdrawal from Bakhmut as a “significant strategic setback,” possibly intimating that he favors such a withdrawal.
Bakhmut is not intrinsically significant operationally or strategically as ISW has previously observed. Taking Bakhmut is necessary but not sufficient for further Russian advances in Donetsk Oblast, and Russian forces have already taken such heavy losses fighting for the city that their attack will very likely culminate after they have secured it—if not before. The loss of Bakhmut is not, therefore, of major operational or strategic concern to Ukraine, as Secretary Austin and others have observed.
But Ukraine’s fight for Bakhmut has become strategically significant because of the current composition of Russian forces arrayed in the area. Some Western reports have recently suggested that Ukraine is expending its own elite manpower and scarce equipment on mainly Wagner Group prison recruits who are mere cannon fodder, noting that such an exchange would be to Ukraine’s disadvantage even at high ratios of Russian to Ukrainian losses. That observation is valid in general, although the pool of Russian convict recruits suitable for combat is not limitless and the permanent elimination of tens of thousands of them in Bakhmut means that they will not be available for more important fights.
Russian forces fighting in Bakhmut are now drawn from the elite elements of the Wagner Group and from Russian airborne units as well as from lower-quality troops. Ukrainian intelligence has supported ISW’s assessment that Russian forces near Bakhmut have recently changed tactics and committed higher-quality special forces operators and elements of conventional forces to the fight. ISW has previously reported on the increasing presence of Russian Airborne (VDV) forces around Bakhmut since late December into early January, indicating that conventional Russian troops may be supporting or even supplanting Wagner’s operations around Bakhmut. The Wagner Group is still likely using prisoners to support operations in Bakhmut, albeit to a much more limited extent than in previous months due to massive losses suffered by those recruits in attritional frontal assaults. But Wagner has now also committed its very best soldiers to the fight, and it is they who are being attrited along with the conscripts.
The Battle of Bakhmut may, in fact, severely degrade the Wagner Group’s best forces, depriving Russia of some of its most effective and most difficult-to-replace shock troops. The Wagner attacks already culminated once, causing the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to commit some of its elite airborne troops to the fight. It may well culminate again before taking the city, once more forcing the Russian military to choose between abandoning the effort or throwing more high-quality troops into the battle. The opportunity to damage the Wagner Group’s elite elements, along with other elite units if they are committed, in a defensive urban warfare setting where the attrition gradient strongly favors Ukraine is an attractive one.
Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin apparently fears that his forces are being expended in exactly this way. Prigozhin made a number of statements on March 5 and 6 that suggest that he fears that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is fighting the Battle of Bakhmut to the last Wagner fighter and exposing his forces to destruction. Prigozhin claimed that he wrote a letter to the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine (presumably Chief of the General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov) with an urgent appeal for the Russian command to allocate ammunition to Wagner but that his representative was denied access to Russian headquarters and could not deliver the appeal. Prigozhin later published a response to the Zelensky-Zaluzhnyi-Syrskyi meeting on March 6 and claimed that Ukraine has formed a number of offensive groups in Donetsk Oblast to “unblock” Wagner’s blockade of Bakhmut and that he has been “raising the alarm” to call for ammunition and reinforcements for Wagner. Prigozhin claimed that if Wagner does not receive needed ammunition and reinforcements and the blockade of Bakhmut breaks, all is essentially lost and that he will stay with Wagner to the end. Prigozhin’s plea to the Russian General Staff and suggestion that he will stay with Wagner until the bitter end suggests that he is working to position himself as the ultimate martyr for the ideological cause that Bakhmut has come to represent in the Russian milblogger information space. More importantly, it shows that he sees his elite forces to be in grave danger.
The severe degradation or destruction of the elite Wagner fighting force would have positive ramifications beyond the battlefield. Prigozhin has ostentatiously ramped up efforts to disseminate Wagner’s militarism and ideology throughout Russia by advertising Wagner’s role in Bakhmut. The Wagner Group has recently opened several recruitment centers at sports clubs throughout Russia, opened a youth branch, and is visiting schoolchildren to lecture them about Wagner’s structure and show them unfiltered combat footage from Ukraine. Wagner’s success in Bakhmut thus far has given Prigozhin a major advantage in the information space, bolstering his reputation and increasing his popularity in a way that will likely have long-term impacts in the Russian domestic sphere. Prigozhin is one of the most extreme of the Russian pro-war nationalists. He is one of the very few with a serious military force loyal to himself. He has even seemed at times a possible threat to Putin or a possible successor. Which may be why Putin is allowing the Russian MoD to hang him out to dry. Badly damaging Prigozhin’s power and reputation within Russia would be an important accomplishment from the standpoint of the long-term prospects for restoring sanity in Russia. That is an aim in America’s interests as well as in Ukraine’s, and it raises the stakes in the Battle of Bakhmut beyond matters of terrain and battlespace geometry.
Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, March 6, 2023 | Institute for the Study of WarLast edited by Ryuu96 - on 07 March 2023