To defend Bakhmut, or to not defend Bakhmut, that is the question.
Russia has focused the bulk of its energies on the embattled Donbas town of Bakhmut for reasons having more to do with their shitty logistics than in any broader strategy.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has tenaciously defended Bakhmut these last eight months because if not there, then Russia will level the next city to the ground. But equally important, the kill differential between the two sides had heavily favored Ukraine. NATO estimates that Russia suffered five killed for every Ukrainian death. Ukraine claimed the differential was 7-1. But disturbing reports have been emerging suggesting that those days are over—that Ukraine’s positions have become far more costly as Russia’s pincer around the town has advanced.
To credential Rob Lee, he’s been inside Bakhmut the last several weeks along with Michael Kofman. Both are long-time analysts of Russian military capabilities and the war in Ukraine. They aren’t armchair-general’ing; they’ve literally been in the trenches on the front lines.
If Bakhmut is being held to prevent the next city from being destroyed, that’s a real and legitimate argument for Ukraine to make. It renders any question about the kill ratio moot. Who cares if Russia is killing 10 Ukrainians for every Russian, if it keeps Siversk or Kramatorsk from facing the same fate as Mariupol or Bakhmut?
Yet Bakhmut’s strategic value is minimal at best, when talking about geography. If we’re talking about the cost in blood? That’s a very strategic question. In fact, it might be the most strategic question of all, as this war won’t be won by who holds what territory, but by which side renders the other militarily ineffective first.
As cold and harsh as it might sound, Ukraine will take that 5-1 ratio any day of the week. Heck, they’ll take a 3-1 ratio. After that, it starts getting dicey. The value of a Russian mobilized soldier or Wagner penal colony fighter is far less than a Ukrainian life, and Russia has far more bodies to throw at the war than Ukraine does. The strategic calculation changes dramatically if Ukraine’s defensive efforts don’t cause Russia far more damage.
Bakhmut doesn't matter. The lives that are being lost there do matter.
As I wrote a week ago, there are far better places for Ukraine to defend. Just west of Bakhmut, Ukraine has defensive lines at Chasiv Tar. You can see on this map how Bakhmut is in a valley (blue), and high ground dominates to the city’s west (red).
This mimics the defensive posture at Vuhledar, where Ukrainian forces can inflict damage on approaching Russians from high ground while suffering minimal casualties of their own. In fact, during one of Russia’s ill-fated attacks on Vuhledar the past few weeks, Ukraine claimed zero casualties. It can pick off approaching Russians with artillery-scattered mines, artillery, anti-tank weapons, drones, and snipers.
As of now, Ukraine claims around 500 Russians killed around Bakhmut every day, but even at a 5-1 ratio, that still means 100 Ukrainians. News, Telegram, and Twitter reports of martyred Ukrainian defenders around Bakhmut abound, and patience is wearing thin. This is the Kyiv Independent’s military reporter:
There’s this, by a soldier on the ground:
As soon as the Russians take the road to Khromovo, Bakhmut will gradually begin to transform from a fortress into a large mass grave. Then there will be no point in keeping silent about things that have been bothering you for many months. Maybe someone will see treason in them, but I will already sneeze deeply. Patience is running out.
To be fair, no soldier, in the history of the world, has ever thought his command was anything but a bunch of raving idiots. They know they are expendable in the minds of those superiors, and explicitly so in this case, as Ukraine brags about the 7-1 ratio. That’s great for the overall strategic situation, not great if you are part of the “1” in that calculation. It’s even worse in these conditions:
Still, it’s one thing to hold a line from advantageous positions, like around Vuhledar, and another to find yourself being surrounded on three sides, with the only
”safe” road out of Bakhmut a soupy mess.
Rob Lee’s assessment above is very clearly based on his time in the city, embedded in the various units fighting for its defense. It can be trusted.
Last week, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated his commitment to defending the city. Today, reports said he was meeting with his top generals to evaluate the city's defense—a notable shift in rhetoric.
Ukraine has two options—a limited counter-offensive to roll back Russian gains north and south of Bakhmut, relieving pressure on the city’s flanks … or retreat. The former would waste valuable resources that could be better used against actual strategic targets—be it pushing south toward Melitopol, or toward Starobilsk in the north. The latter would surrender an insignificant plot of land for more defensible positions directly to its west.
The choice seems obvious to me, in my most glorious armchair quarterbacking mode. I get it, I’m not on the ground. I don’t have the information that Ukraine’s general staff has. Even U.S. generals seem okay with the city’s defense, and they also know stuff we don’t.
But it’s hard to see a scenario where this continues to make sense. And it’s not just us, from afar, questioning Bakhmut’s continued defense. The debate is now raging all-out in Ukraine itself.
Progressives have had tremendous success passing all sorts of reforms at the ballot box in recent years, including measures that have expanded Medicaid, increased the minimum wage, and created independent redistricting commissions. How have Republicans responded? By making it harder to qualify measures for the ballot.
Daily Kos Elections' own Stephen Wolf joins us on this week's episode of The Downballot for a deep dive on the GOP's war on ballot initiatives, which includes burdensome signature requirements that disproportionately impact liberals; ramping up the threshold for passage for citizen-backed measures but not those referred by legislatures; and simply repealing voter-passed laws Republicans don't like. But Republican power is not unfettered, and Stephen explains how progressives can fight back by defeating efforts to curtail ballot measures—many of which voters themselves would first have to approve.