Russia’s grinding push for the eastern city of Bakhmut shows Moscow “overestimated” the strength of its forces, one Ukrainian commander has suggested, as both sides vie for a victory to position themselves for fresh major offensives in 2023 they hope will end the conflict.
Roman Kostenko—one of the famous “cyborg” Ukrainian troops who defended Donetsk airport in 2014, a veteran of the years-long fight against Russian-directed forces in the Donbas and now a member of Ukraine’s parliament—told Newsweek from close to the southern front around his home city of Kherson that the area around Bakhmut “is where the hottest action is happening at the moment.”
For months, Russian troops led by Wagner Group mercenaries have been trying to seize Bakhmut, a transport hub close to the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk from which Moscow controls puppet republics in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.
Fierce fighting has nearly destroyed Bakhmut and inflicted heavy casualties on both sides, although Ukrainian reports claim Moscow’s troops have suffered more than the defenders.
“Despite all the difficulties we are holding on to it,” said Kostenko, who is commanding a special forces unit. “This standoff over Bakhmut is really telling, because it shows how the Russians overestimated their own strength. The picture of an unstoppable force [President Vladimir Putin] tried to project at the start of the invasion has been overshadowed by the reality of a weak and unmotivated military.”
“We see this in Bakhmut, where the Russians are throwing everything at us, are said to have a 9:1 advantage over our forces, and yet have been unable to take it,” he said.
Military and Political Prize
Bakhmut was a significant strategic target. The city with a population of some 73,000 before Russia’s latest invasion sits just west of the M03 highway running towards the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk—two major objectives for past and future Russian offensives. Bakhmut’s railways connect the city to the city of Luhansk and the Russian border.
Taking the city and surrounding area, European Council on Foreign Relations senior policy fellow Gustav Gressel told Newsweekwould also put welcome distance between Ukrainian troops and the key occupied city of Donetsk.
“It makes sense from a Russian point of view to push there,” Gressel said. “Donetsk is the metropolis for their occupying regime, the Donetsk People’s Republic is the only functioning occupation administration, and they use their personnel for running occupation authorities in the other provinces. You want to push Ukrainians further away from that; it certainly makes sense from their overall political point of view.”
Kostenko said Bakhmut “doesn’t have any major strategic significance, and its operational significance is also limited,” though acknowledged that its position at the entry of the Bakhmut-Konstantinovka road “could hypothetically give them some advantage.”
But, he added, “it won’t be a game changer in this conflict, even if they could take it.”
“While we are able, we want to hold on to the city. Because leaving it would entail readjusting our defensive lines, which would take a bit of time,” he said.
The battle for Bakhmut appears primarily a political one for Moscow. Amid the disappointing and at times humiliating performance of regular Russian forces, the Wagner Group mercenary outfit has taken on responsibility for delivering Bakhmut for the Kremlin.
Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin—known as “Putin’s chef” due to the fortune he made via state catering contracts—is among the Kremlin “siloviki” to have embraced the invasion of Ukraine in pursuit of his own political interests.
Prigozhin previously ducked public acknowledgment of his Wagner links. Now, he has admitted leadership of the mercenary group and praised the potential of its members—now including many convicts. Bakhmut is supposed to be a demonstration proving that Wagner can do what the regular armed forces cannot.
“The Wagner Group, the ex-cons, it’s not just Putin, but Prigozhin’s name is on the line now,” Kostenko said. “They cannot pull back having pumped so many resources into this offensive. And that comes at a cost to other parts of the front line where they are under-resourced.”
Buried by Bodies
For all Wagner’s propaganda, the offensive on Bakhmut has followed the standard Russian playbook: massed artillery and airstrikes that destroy the objective followed by infantry assault teams supported by armor. The approach is slow, costly, and devastating.
“There’s barely any Bakhmut left—the enemy has basically flattened the city with artillery and airstrikes,” Kostenko said. “They are still sending in more men, effectively burying the city with the bodies of their own soldiers.”
Russian forces tried to win the war in a matter of days with an early “thunder run” on Kyiv, but mobile columns were quickly bogged down and destroyed due to badly limited logistical capabilities. Subsequent Russian operations have been characterized by slow, artillery-fueled attrition against enemy positions and settlements.
The heavy casualties of the spring fighting mean Russia is limited in the operations it can launch.
“They are already short of officers and commanders, so they have to stick to very simple battle plans,” Gressel explained. “I think that will be something we will see also if they begin offensives in other portions of the front; it will go down sort of in a very similar way.”
“They are in dire need of officers,” Gressel said. “They’re shortened officer training to get the cadets out to the troops to the mobilized troops. But, of course, you can’t expect much from very hastily trained officers.”
Although the momentum appears to be with the Ukrainians after two successful counter-offensive drives in the fall, Russia is still mobilizing new troops. Ukrainian commander-in-chief Valery Zaluzhny told The Economist that Moscow is preparing 200,000 new soldiers, hoping that a 2023 offensive might even take Kyiv.
Russian forces are training in Belarus, with Ukrainian leaders warning Minsk’s forces might join their Russian allies in a renewed drive south and west towards NATO borders. Such a plan would be highly risky and likely costly for both Putin and President Alexander Lukashenko.
“Where will they strike with the remaining 200,000 guys that are still undergoing training, that’s the million-dollar question,” Gressel said. “There is a lot of preparation on the northern border, opposite Kharkiv Oblast. I’ve seen Ukrainian news of a lot of saboteurs and reconnaissance teams trying to infiltrate that part of the border.”
“I would not be surprised if the next offensive the Russians are planning is going to be a northern offensive; they reopen Sumy Oblast, Kharkiv Oblast, and try to push down from the north,” Gressel said, noting an attack in this area would have the benefit of short supply lines back across the border into Russia.
“The Russian military buildup is far from complete and they’re still undergoing training,” Gressel added. “We of course can’t know for sure, but that would be the guess from my side.”