Ukraine might still have some lingering presence in Bakhmut, but for all practical purposes, Bakhmut has fallen. But don’t worry. As a result, Russia is now in a worse position than before.
The mercenary Wagner Group’s founder and CE0, Yevgeny Prigozhin, declared victory (again) Saturday, making sure to stress how useless Russia’s ministry of defense was in the capture of Ukraine’s 58th largest city.
Confirming what Mark Sumner and I predicted multiple times, he then declared his troops would withdraw from the city on May 25, leaving the city’s defense to the regular Russian army. He’s happy to take credit for the capture, letting his rival Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu to take the blame when Ukraine inevitably liberates the city.
Russian dictator Vladimir Putin congratulated Prigozhin directly for the city’s capture according to state media. "Vladimir Putin congratulates Wagner assault teams as well as all Russian troops, who rendered the required assistance and shielded the flanks, with the completion of the operation to liberate Artyomovsk," read a Kremlin statement. “Everyone, who distinguished himself in the battle, will be recommended for the state decorations."
“Artemovsk” is Russia’s name for Bakhmut. Despite Prigozhin’s unhinged attacks on the war effort in recent weeks, Putin is still backing him.
Yes, there was celebration, but the mood on Russian Telegram and Twitter seemed oddly subdued, none fitting the effort put into this operation. When even Prigozhin says that “the village of Bakhmut is of no strategic importance for further progress to the west,” there’s not much here to celebrate. It’s also hard to really sell the “liberation” narrative when every single resident has been driven from the city, every structure destroyed.
Bakhmut mattered when Russia dreamt of enveloping Ukrainian defenses in the Donbas with a pincer maneuver that ran through Bakhmut in the south, and Izyum in the north. But Izyum was liberated last October, rendering that strategy moot. So now Russia gets to sit in Bakhmut’s ruins for no discernible reason.
You know who the big winner is? Ukraine.
Lots of people, me included, have argued that Ukraine would be better served occupying the heights west of Bakhmut, firing into Russian troops in the town. Now, they get to do exactly that.
All those hills west of Bakhmut, except for the heights at Berkhivka, are still held by Ukraine, and Ukraine’s success on the flanks means they are likely to stay that way.
With Ukraine maintaining line-of-sight into Bakhmut, it’ll be like shooting fish in a barrel. There’s a reason that Prigozhin recorded his video in Bakhmut’s center, as opposed to the city’s more recently captured western districts. It's not safe over there. Once Wagner retreats, Russia might not even bother laying any real defense. Ukraine isn’t going to make an exposed frontal assault on the town. They aren’t wastefully stupid like Wagner. And there’s zero value in the rubble. What matters is that Russia’s offensive has culminated, they are no longer trying to advance, and any invaders that saunter into Ukraine’s line of vision will be pulverized.
Meanwhile, Prigozhin looks to redeploy his mercenary group to Sudan and other African hotspots, where he can terrorize the local population and plunder its natural resources. If Putin allows him to do that, that’s terrible news for Africa, but that’s one less chit Russia will have to play in Ukraine.
In other words, Ukraine is now in a better place than it was before Wagner’s Pyrrhic victory. War historians will debate the value of Ukraine’s fierce extended defense for decades. But for now, none of that matters. Ukraine has the upper hand.
p.s. The Chechen Kadyrovites promised to relieve Wagner forces in Bakhmut. Two weeks later, they still haven’t shown up. I’ll be shocked if they ever do.
With the United State’s blessing, a Western coalition is now set to deliver F-16s to Ukraine after proper training. While the Biden administration hasn’t explicitly stated, the U.S., with over 1,000 F-16s in service, will necessarily have to be a donor. Most people assume the biggest challenge is training pilots, but that’s the easy part. As we’ve hammered over and over again in our coverage, the real challenge is the maintenance and logistics. Check out this great thread on the difficulties of supporting airplanes:
At this point, it’s clear everyone thinks Ukraine has the ability to support the aircraft, but it’s not going to happen quickly, not unless private military contractors handle much of the early maintenance (which is a thing that could very well happen). Ukraine certainly expects to have the planes by the fall.
What isn’t a challenge or worry is Putin. “We see that western countries are still adhering to the escalation scenario,” Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Alexander Grushko, told the state agency TASS. “It involves colossal risks for themselves. In any case, this will be taken into account in all our plans, and we have all the necessary means to achieve the goals we have set.”
Blah blah blah blah. it’s the same tired script Russia trots out each time Ukraine scores a new weapons system.
“Now a few important, very important words for those who may be tempted to intervene in the ongoing events,” said Putin on February 24, 2002, just two days after he launched his illegal invasion. “Whoever tries to hinder us, or threaten our country or our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any turn of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard.”
“All necessary decisions have been made.”
“We have all the necessary means to achieve our goals.”
So many “necessary” things have been accomplished, so many “immediate consequences” threatened. Yet Russia has no real means to back up their threats, which just makes it look even sadder and more pathetic. It’s amazing how such (veiled nuclear) threats once stymied the delivery of better weapons, be they HIMARS, or tanks, or mid-range cruise missiles, or aircraft. By now, we definitively have a “boy who cried wolf” situation. No one believes or cares what the Kremlin says or threatens.
There are several avenues for Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive.
Everyone is expecting Ukraine to push south into Zaporizhzhia oblast, either toward Melitopol or Mariupol, in order to sever Putin’s cherished “land bridge” between mainland Russia and the Crimean peninsula. That’s certainly what Russia thinks, with an intricate network of trenches and other defensive emplacements crisis-crossing that entire region.
I’ve previously championed the Starobilsk approach for two reasons. First of all, it would cut a major supply route from the Belgorod region into eastern Ukraine. Additionally, Starobilsk is the hub of the entire region’s transportation network. Every road and rail line radiates out from the town like spokes on a wheel. Once Ukraine takes it, that entire chunk of red in that northeastern corner of Ukraine would be instantly liberated.
However, I’m now convinced Russia has all but conceded it already. It’s had plenty of time to reroute its logistics through eastern Ukraine. And it’s only built a single line of new trench defenses east of Svatove. Given its challenges in manning that 1,000+ kilometer front, and its clear lack of a mobile reserve, it seems unlikely there’s much there—just enough to keep Ukrainian forces fixed on that front, but not enough to present real resistance if Ukraine makes a serious effort to punch through Svatove.
Therefore, assuming Russia has moved its logistics, a Ukrainian attack in this direction would be of little value. Liberating all that empty steppe would look great on a map, but it would do little to bring Ukraine closer to victory.
The Melitopol and Donetsk directions make the most strategic sense. If Russia puts up stiff resistance, then it’s best to dedicate the bulk of Ukraine’s storm brigades in those directions. But if Russian resistance collapses quickly, throwing a brigade or two up around Svatove to push through to Starobilsk would be a great “cherry on top.”
Vitaly and his wife celebrated learning Vitalia was pregnant November 2022. He died days later on the front lines. That baby has now been born.
"Please, everyone who knows my husband, Vitaly Kirkach-Antonenko, congratulate him on becoming a father. Anyone in Slovyansk, visit him and give to him flowers. He will never be able to hug his little daughter, but Vitaly was waiting for her. We dreamed together about this day, we imagined our joy and pride when we would be able to hold our firstborn in our arms. Thank you to everyone who helped us all this time, thanks to your support during these most terrible six months" • wrote Natalya Kyrkach-Antonenko.
Ukrainians have one of the most poignant sendoff for their fallen heroes: