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Doubts are growing about the wisdom of holding the shattered frontline city of Bakhmut against relentless Russian assaults, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is digging in and insists his top commanders are united in keeping up an attritional defense that has dragged on for months.
Fighting around Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donbas dramatically escalated late last year, with Zelenskyy slamming the Russians for hurling men — many of them convicts recruited by the Wagner mercenary group — forward to almost certain death in “meat waves.” Now the bloodiest battle of the war, Bakhmut offers a vision of conflict close to World War I, with flooded trenches and landscapes blasted by artillery fire.
In the past weeks, as Ukrainian forces have been almost encircled in a salient, lacking shells and facing spiking casualties, there has been increased speculation both in Ukraine and abroad that the time has come to pull back to another defensive line — a retrenchment that would not be widely seen as a massive military setback, although Russia would claim a symbolic victory.
In an address on Wednesday night, however, Zelenskyy explained he remained in favor of slogging it out in Bakhmut.
“There was a clear position of the entire general staff: Reinforce this sector and inflict maximum possible damage upon the occupier,” Zelenskyy said in a video address after meeting with Ukraine’s Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyy and other senior generals to discuss a battle that’s prompting mounting anxiety among Ukraine’s allies and is drawing criticism from some Western military analysts.
“All members expressed a common position regarding the further holding and defense of the city,” Zelenskyy said.
This is the second time in as many weeks that Ukraine’s president has cited the backing of his top commanders. Ten days ago, Zelenskyy’s office issued a statement also emphasizing that Zaluzhnyy and Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, agreed with his decision to hold fast at Bakhmut.
The long-running logic of the Ukrainian armed forces has been that Russia has suffered disproportionately high casualties, allowing Kyiv’s forces to grind down the invaders, ahead of a Ukrainian counter-offensive expected shortly, in the spring.
City of glass, brick and debris
Criticism has been growing among some in the Ukrainian ranks — and among Western allies — about continuing with the almost nine-month-long battle. The disquiet was muted at first and expressed behind the scenes, but is now spilling into the open.
On social media some Ukrainian soldiers have been expressing bitterness at their plight, although they say they will do their duty and hold on as ordered. “Bakhmut is a city of glass, bricks and debris, which crackle underfoot like the fates of people who fought here,” tweeted one.
A lieutenant on Facebook noted: “There is a catastrophic shortage of shells.” He said the Russians were well dug in and it was taking five to seven rounds to hit an enemy position. He complained of equipment challenges, saying “Improvements — improvements have already been promised, because everyone who has a mouth makes promises.” But he cautioned his remarks shouldn’t be taken as a plea for a retreat. “WE WILL FULFILL OUR DUTY UNTIL THE END, WHATEVER IT IS!” he concluded ruefully.
Iryna Rybakova, a press officer with Ukraine’s 93rd brigade, also gave a flavor of the risks medics are facing in the town. “Those people who go back and forth to Bakhmut on business are taking an incredible risk. Everything is difficult,” she tweeted.
The key strategic question is whether Zelenskyy is being obdurate and whether the fight has become more a test of wills than a tactically necessary engagement that will bleed out Russian forces before Ukraine’s big counter-strike.
“Traveling around the front you hear a lot of grumblings where folks aren’t sure whether the reason they’re holding Bakhmut is because it’s politically important” as opposed to tactically significant, according to Michael Kofman, an American military analyst and director of the Russia Studies Program at the Center for Naval Analyses.
Kofman, who traveled to Bakhmut to observe the ferocious battle first-hand, said in the War on the Rocks podcast that while the battle paid dividends for the Ukrainians a few months ago, allowing it to maintain a high kill ratio, there are now diminishing returns from continuing to engage.
“Happening in the fight now is that the attrition exchange rate is favorable to Ukraine but it’s not nearly as favorable as it was before. The casualties on the Ukrainian side are rather significant and require a substantial amount of replacements on a regular basis,” he said.
The Ukrainians have acknowledged they have also been suffering significant casualties at Bakhmut, which Russia is coming ever closer to encircling. They claim, though, the Russians are losing seven soldiers for each Ukrainian life lost, while NATO military officials put the kill ratio at more like five to one. But Kofman and other military analysts are skeptical, saying both sides are now suffering roughly the same rate of casualties.
“I hope the Ukrainian command really, really, really knows what it’s doing in Bakhmut,” tweeted Illia Ponomarenko, the Kyiv Independent’s defense reporter.
Last week, Zelenskyy received support for his decision to remain engaged at Bakhmut from retired U.S. generals David Petraeus and Mark Hertling on the grounds that the battle was causing a much higher Russian casualty rate. “I think at this moment using Bakhmut to allow the Russians to impale themselves on it is the right course of action, given the extraordinary casualties that the Russians are taking,” retired general and former CIA director Petraeus told POLITICO.
But in the last couple of weeks the situation has shifted, said Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine officer and now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and the kill ratio is no longer a valid reason to remain engaged. “Bakhmut is no longer a good place to attrit Russian forces,” he tweeted. Lee says Ukrainian casualties have risen since Russian forces, comprising Wagner mercenaries as well as crack Russian airborne troops, pushed into the north of the town at the end of February.
The Russians have been determined to record a victory at Bakhmut, which is just six miles southwest of the salt-mining town of Soledar, which was overrun two months ago after the Wagner Group sacrificed thousands of its untrained fighters there too.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has hinted several times that he sees no tactical military reason to defend Bakhmut, saying the eastern Ukrainian town was of more symbolic than operational importance, and its fall wouldn’t mean Moscow had regained the initiative in the war.
Ukrainian generals have pushed back at such remarks, saying there’s a tactical reason to defend the town. Zaluzhnyy said on his Telegram channel: “It is key in the stability of the defense of the entire front.”
Midweek, the Washington Post reported that U.S. officials have been urging the Ukrainians since the end of January to withdraw from Bakhmut, fearing the depletion of their own troops could impact Kyiv’s planned spring offensive. Ukrainian officials say there’s no risk of an impact on the offensive as the troops scheduled to be deployed are not fighting at Bakhmut.
That’s prompted some Ukrainian troops to complain that Kyiv is sacrificing ill-trained reservists at Bakhmut, using them as expendable in much the same way the Russians have been doing with Wagner conscripts. A commander of the 46th brigade — with the call sign Kupol — told the newspaper that inexperienced draftees are being used to plug the losses. He has now been removed from his post, infuriating his soldiers, who have praised him.
Kofman worries that the Ukrainians are not playing to their military strengths at Bakhmut. Located in a punch bowl, the town is not easy to defend, he noted. “Ukraine is a dynamic military” and is good when it is able “to conduct a mobile defense.” He added: “Fixed entrenches, trying to concentrate units there, putting people one after another into positions that have been hit by artillery before doesn’t really play to a lot of Ukraine’s advantages.”
“They’ve mounted a tenacious defense. I don’t think the battle is nearly as favorable as it’s somewhat publicly portrayed but more importantly, I think they somewhat run the risk of encirclement there,” he added.