I certainly wasn’t panicking, and I didn’t even buy the situation was any more dire than usual. Yes, Ukraine was giving up ground, but that’s not particularly noteworthy, not if you’ve seen Ukraine’s urban defensive strategy. Here is me writing about the defense of Severodonetsk:
On the first day of its assault, Russia declared control of 80% of the city as Russian sources gloated over a mass Ukrainian retreat. Chechen leader/puppet Ramzan Kadyrov took to TikTok to declare the entire city liberated. From all indications, it appeared Ukraine was doing the sensible thing—a fighting retreat to Lysychansk, behind its river, to its higher ground.
Then a funny thing happened. Reports claimed Ukraine had laid a trap, lulled Russia into the city’s center under a false sense of security, then pounced. There were claims that Ukraine had recaptured 50-70% of the city [...]
Ukrainian special forces reportedly operate at night, clear blind Russians from their positions, then retreat when Russia responds with its typical smash-everything artillery barrage. With nothing but rubble left standing, Ukraine is no longer restricted by its desire to protect urban infrastructure. Thus, Ukraine can now rain its own artillery and mortar fire from Lysychansk’s high ground anytime Russian forces expose themselves amidst the rubble.
This is what’s called a “flexible defense,” and we’ve seen it time and time again—trade territory for blood, then take advantage of Russia’s unprotected advance positions and undeveloped supply lines to push them back to original positions. Bakhmut is no different, as this interesting report from that front makes clear.
[Ukraine] Holding the first line of trenches (the ‘trip line’ as it was known in German terminology) at all costs is avoided. This leads ‘to artillery damage and significant losses for the defenders.’ Instead, ‘Defensive units should be able to withdraw to reserve positions, and surveillance should be strengthened on attack routes. And then even if someone [enemy] manages to advance under fire to an advanced position, there will be losses… positions from the flanks must be able to cut off the approach of significant enemy forces, and the situation can be restored by a counter-attack of the tactical reserve with armoured vehicles.’
‘It makes no sense to hold a position until the last while the enemy bombards it, and constantly replace people in this position, because the “Wagnerians” will not run out, their goal is to impose an exchange on us.’
So Ukraine holds the trash dump, but retreats as Russia rains artillery on the location. Russia’s Wagner mercenaries push into the dump and declare victory. They celebrate on Telegram and TikTok as the Ukrainian side despairs. Things are tough, and tenuous, and Russia is advancing, Bakhmut is in danger! Oh no, even the “wine factory” is in Russia’s hands!
In reality, those Wagnerites at the vanguard are now exposed, facing Ukrainian concealed defensive positions, as a wall of Ukrainian artillery hinders both the advance and the ability to resupply those troops. Take a look at what that looks like:
Wagner doesn’t care much. They are happy to trade the lives of their prison cannon fodder to reveal Ukraine’s concealed defensive positions. In turn, Russian artillery can then pound those spots while the next wave of doomed infantry are lined up.
Thing is, the Wagner assaults can only run so long before they run out of steam, and when that happens, Ukraine is happy to retake their original front lines. So today, Ukraine is back at the trash dump. Yes, this “flexible defense” comes at a cost, but Russia’s is far higher.
Mark linked to that video already, but the full-length one is here. The body count at the end is graphic. Today, Ukraine is back in control of that trench complex. And who knows, maybe Russia will muster up a new attack, and Ukraine can then abandon those positions in their flexible defense, and we can repeat the whole bloody affair all over again.
Bakhmut isn’t in danger because Ukraine can’t hold their lines. It’s in danger because Ukraine is happy with the status quo. Ukraine had an entire army group in Kherson oblast not too long ago. Where are they now? We know some of those units relieved the Bakhmut garrison, but not all of them, just enough to hold the line, while sending the bulk of those free forces to wherever their next offensive will take place.
Ukraine is happy to let Wagner burn through Russia’s entire prison population around the town. Heck, Russia’s Ministry of Defense seems happy to let Wagner bleed out in Bakhmut (while attriting Ukrainian forces and ammo.) There is clearly no love lost between the rival armies. But if the town was truly in danger, there are no shortages of Ukrainian reserves to rush into town, nor artillery assets to bring to bear.
I’ve consistently noted Bakhmut’s lack of strategic importance. This thread makes a strong counter-argument.
It’s not a bad argument. Thing is, it was more relevant when Russia was threatening Izyum, making Bakhmut the southern approach to a pincer movement that would threaten Ukraine’s entire Donbas defense. None of that is on the table anymore.
If you missed it, Mark’s update yesterday had a ton of good stuff, including more background on Wagner that informs much of what is happening in Bakhmut.
Russia is a bleak place.
You have to be a real ghoul to prey on grieving families.
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