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Staggering onto Bakhmut: Russia’s Culmination Point

While Russia’s winter offensive crawls onward at a tremendous cost in blood and armaments, Paul Niland assesses the strategic position as a Ukrainian counter-offensive looms

A Ukrainian Soldier in the trenches around the eastern city of Bakhmut. Photo; Reuters/Alamy

Staggering onto BakhmutRussia’s Culmination Point

While Russia’s winter offensive crawls onward at a tremendous cost in blood and armaments, Paul Niland assesses the strategic position as a Ukrainian counter-offensive looms

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Despite the brutality of the fighting ongoing in the east of Ukraine, it appears that we are fast approaching the culmination point for Vladimir Putin’s invading forces; the point when a military force is expended and its ability to fight on is so far degraded that it is almost non-existent.

This does not mean that the war is yet won. But the culmination point, with sufficient Western support for Ukraine, may not be too far off. As such, it is essential that nobody considers letting up. In my view, the demise of Russia must be accelerated in every possible way because Ukrainians are paying a heavy price in their fight for the future of their nation.

Setting aside, for now, the situation in the south of Ukraine and the partial occupation of the provinces of Zaporizhzhia and Kherson, the battlefield dynamics in the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, where the bulk of the fighting has been taking place of late, is telling.

It has been observable for several months that Russia’s gains have been slow and have come at a very heavy price in terms of fighters killed and wounded and in equipment losses. The last population centre that the Russians could claim to have fully taken was the town of Soledar, with a pre-war population of less than 11,000. Now, the major battles are around places such as Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Kreminna and Avdiivka.

While Bakhmut attracts considerable media attention, it is important to note that this city carries virtually no strategic value for the Russians. It is not a major rail or road nexus. Despite this, fighting for control of this city that once was a peaceful home to 73,000 Ukrainian citizens has raged since August of 2022. The strategies of the two sides have been plain to see. For Russia, it is victory at any cost, for Ukraine it has been to utilize the defence of this city as an opportunity to liquidate the maximum number of enemy combatants. 

At some point, and this may come in the near future, the Ukrainians will assess that the continued defence of this city, which now lies in ruins, passes the point of diminishing returns by no longer providing the return of enemy dead as compared to the cost of holding on to the pile of rubble Russian artillery has degraded the city.

For Russia, the eventual capture of Bakhmut offers them an opportunity to pretend that they are getting something out of their war efforts, for Ukraine any strategic fighting withdrawal will simply mean moving back to the next town and continuing the same tactics of mass attrition of the invaders from that vantage point.   

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The city of Vuhledar does carry strategic importance as it is located at a crossroads of the eastern and southern occupation zones, however, the fighting there has been particularly costly to the Russians in terms of equipment losses. While Avdiivka has been a frontline city since the real beginning of the war in 2014 and has been contested since at least since 2015. 

The fighting in the 2014-2022 period of the Russia-Ukraine war is very different to what we have seen over the last 12 months, while Russia masked their invasion and managed to convince large numbers of people that they were merely supporting “separatists” the war had to remain somewhat covert, just over a year ago it switched to overt and with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine they were obliged to commit both men and equipment in vast quantities. Much of which has been destroyed, in vast quantities. That is what has brought us close to this culmination point.

As can be seen from the glacial pace of Russia’s advances, in stark contrast to Ukraine’s lightening advance across the previously occupied parts of Kharkiv, what Russia is getting is another piece of destroyed real estate but it is taking months for them to do so and costing them tens of thousands of lives.

Russia’s dictator had thought that he could make up for those losses with sheer numbers, calling for the conscription of 300,000 men in the autumn of last year proves that he thinks this would turn the battle around by throwing bodies into the fighting.

As has been noted many times, replacing killed experienced soldiers with men that have received little to no training and/or have been poorly equipped is not a winning strategy. The mobilised soldiers serve a combination of purposes, they are used to wear out Ukraine’s supply of ammunition and as they draw fire from the Ukrainian defenders Russian spotters can work out locations that they target with their artillery. 

Given the value (for propaganda purposes as much as anything else) for Russia in capturing Vuhledar and Bakhmut, we know that they have been sending reinforcements to those locations, and this leaves other occupied areas vulnerable to Ukraine’s coming counteroffensive as, like in Kharkiv, when Ukraine moves forward they will encounter an enemy that is much depleted.

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Underestimating your enemy is folly, but looking at Russia’s losses and the quality of what has replaced those killed or wounded in action, with what forces will Russia be able to defend Ukraine’s looming strike to sever the land bridge to Crimea? Indeed what forces does Russia have left to defend the peninsula of Crimea itself?

No, what is coming will not be easy. Despite a lack of training and terrible morale, any armed Russian can still end the life of one of Ukraine’s heroes. But when the battle capacity of the two sides are looked at side to side, Russia has been descending for months and Ukraine’s has been on the rise ever since Putin took the fateful decision to attempt to subjugate this country to his rule. His war aims have changed as the shortcomings of his military were exposed, and as Ukrainians refused to bow to his will, but to bring an end to this war a decisive victory is necessary to humiliate him and to accelerate the demise of his evil regime and all it stands for.

Now is the time to double down on military assistance to Ukraine so that the liberation of Ukrainian lands can be brought about more swiftly, and with a lower cost in terms of those who will pay the ultimate sacrifice. Russia is on the ropes, it is time for a knockout punch.

In Ukraine, both in society and in the military, there is a certainty of victory and that is complemented by two more things. The first is a growing international call for reparations to rebuild Ukraine, and the second is the growing coalition of nations calling for Putin and all of his accomplices to face justice for their catalogue of crimes. Those three things are sequenced: victory, compensation, tribunal.

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