The Battle for Bakhmut

From The Wall Street Journal:

BAKHMUT, Ukraine—Russian shells slammed closer and closer as Ludmyla Bondarenko and Zoya Shilkova, clad in fur coats atop layers of clothing, sat on a bench outside their apartment block, chatting and getting some fresh air on a frigid afternoon in what remains of this eastern Ukrainian city.

At an intersection nearby, Ukrainian troops used a crane to emplace concrete slabs, fortifying the neighborhood. Three freshly arrived tanks roared by, blue-and-yellow flags fluttering from their turrets. A distant staccato of machine-gun fire could be heard amid the thumps of artillery.

“We’re so used to it by now, we no longer pay much attention,” Ms. Bondarenko, 76, said as she pointed to a nearby crater left by a Russian shell in the morning. “It’s been going on for months. When is it going to end?”

“It’s probably never going to end,” replied Ms. Shilkova, 75.

Their apartments have had no heating, power or running water for months. The only available food comes from volunteers. “It’s a humanitarian catastrophe. That’s how we live,” Ms. Bondarenko said.

Russian soldiers and fighters from the Wagner private military company have been fighting to capture Bakhmut, a town of 70,000 people that was best known for its sparkling wines before the war, for nearly six months now.

Daily Russian pounding has turned the once-elegant city center into a succession of obliterated facades, with debris strewn on the streets amid freshly dug-out trenches and antitank barriers.

The Russians reached the eastern outskirts of Bakhmut in early July, in the wake of their last successful offensive, the seizure of nearby Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. The tide of war has dramatically turned in Kyiv’s favor elsewhere in the country since then, as Ukrainian forces ousted Russian troops from vast areas of the Kharkiv, Donetsk and, last month, Kherson regions.

Now, Bakhmut has become the war’s main battlefield, with Ukraine and Russia alike pouring in troops, tanks and artillery, in a concentration of firepower rarely seen since the invasion began 10 months ago. Wagner’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has recruited tens of thousands of criminals in Russian prisons for the storming of Bakhmut. Moscow has also sent some of the 300,000 new troops mobilized since October.

The future of Bakhmut is vital for Mr. Prigozhin, a confidant of President Vladimir Putin who criticized regular Russian military commanders as inept, touted Wagner as the country’s best fighting force and secured access to Russian prisoners and generous state funding after promising to capture the Ukrainian city months ago.

The new Russian military commander in Ukraine, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, also has much at stake here. Appointed in early October, Gen. Surovikin justified last month’s withdrawal from Kherson in part by citing the need to use those troops for offensive operations elsewhere.

“Surovikin must show some sort of victory somewhere since his appointment,” said Fedir Venislavskiy, a member of the Ukrainian parliament’s national-security, defense and intelligence committee. “What the Russian military and political leadership desire very much is a capture of Bakhmut. And that’s why both Surovikin and Prigozhin are throwing all their forces at it.”

Ukraine’s calculation is also not purely based on a strictly military rationale. If Bakhmut were to fall, the town of Chasiv Yar on heights just to the west of it could provide a convenient line of defense for the Ukrainian-controlled 40% of the Donetsk region that Russia claims as its own.

 “From the military standpoint, Bakhmut doesn’t have strategic significance,” the commander of Ukrainian land forces, Col. Gen. Oleksandr Syrsky, said in a Ukrainian TV appearance this month. “But, at the same time, it has psychological significance.”

Indeed, a retreat from Bakhmut would signal Ukraine losing the initiative after four months of steady advances, raising Russian morale and making it harder to pursue further Ukrainian offensives in Donetsk and the nearby Luhansk region. That is why, in the past three weeks, Ukraine has saturated the area with fresh troops and equipment.

Through most of the war, Ukraine usually tried to avoid set-piece battles where both sides concentrate their resources, aware that this type of warfare can play to Russia’s advantages.

“Some of the things that make us strong, such as independence, initiative, the ability to act even when without clear orders, can also become our weaknesses when many units are in the same place, and each has their own view,” said Mykola Volokhov, commander of the Terra drone-reconnaissance unit that, among other Ukrainian forces, was relocated to Bakhmut from the Kherson front this month. “The outcome in Bakhmut will depend on the ability of our forces to achieve coordination.”

Another part of the puzzle is what happens on the Kreminna-Svatove front to the north, where Ukrainian offensive operations have been literally bogged down because of weather that has made unpaved roads impassable. A sustained drop in temperatures, Ukrainian commanders say, could freeze the ground and allow Ukrainian forces to resume their push eastward.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

TPV isn’t a current events or political blog, but PG thought the beginning of this article was a well-written way of putting the Ukrainian war into more human terms.

The President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, did a masterful job early in the war of putting the invasion into human terms and gaining a great deal of Western sympathy and support for his nation. Zelenskyy personalized the war and has not attempted to disguise the difficult circumstances most of the people in Ukraine are dealing with due to this war.

PG doubts that Ukraine had the ability to remove many of its citizens out of harm’s way and, based on his reading, PG’s perception is that, unlike some other wars, there is nothing like a war zone separate from the general populace.

Hence, in our mind’s eye, we see Ludmyla and Zoya, two elderly women, chatting on a bench while tanks roar past and approaching explosions of Russian artillery shells provide an aural backdrop for their conversation. And we hope nothing bad will happen to them.

15 thoughts on “The Battle for Bakhmut”

  1. Zelenski pulled the rug out from under Western experts when he refused the plane they had waiting to take him out of the country.

    • He forged a national identity overnight.
      In the process he killed the last of Kissinger’s realpolitik appeasement of Russia. Obama let Putin grab Crimea with only some pearl clutching and meaningless gestures.
      Zelenskyy (and Poland) left Biden so such option and exposed Russia as a paper bear trying to intimidate their way out of terminal demographics. Not that it was going to succeed but it would have bought Russia an extra decade.

      In recounting the history of these days, the role of the Poles will not to be minimized because if Russia succeeds in taking Ukraine (it is still possible) Poland and the Baltics were/are next.

      The geopolitics of Empire dictate that either Russia controls the Northern European Plain or collapses. This war was predicted decades ago. At this point the latter is starting to look viable, starting in Chechnya. Once that starts, central Asia will be recast with Uzbekistan and Turkey the big players in a Turkic peoples federation.

      Bad times are here to stay.

      BTW, Bahkmut has no significant military value per se. The fighting is a gesture by Prigozhin and his mercenaries–think French Foreign Legion–to shame Putin out of power. Know that name. He may not win in Ukraine but he stands a chance of replacing Putin. This will not be good.

        • Watched the whole thing.
          A good summary, trying to cover all posibilities; hard to argue with any part of it.
          I’ll keep the site on my short list.

          One of their conclusions and a new piece of news this morning makes me think all the “gains” the russians have made will vanish in a week.

          The news: the US is now sending JDAM glide bombs.
          Odd until you remember that when the russians switched to attacking civilian infrastructure the US, UK, et al started sending more and better air defenses to Ukraine. When they’re all in place, Ukraine’s air force won’t be limited to interception duty but instead will be free to provide air support. Hence JDAMs.
          That is not something entrenched troops will enjoy.

          The Law of Unintended Consequences rules in War, too.
          (At least when IdiotPoliticians™ are running the show.)

          An extra thought brought up by the JDAM news:
          The US has over a thousand first generation F16’s in the boneyard.
          Back in June there was a report of some Ukrainian pilots coming to the US to learn to fly US planes like the A10, F15, and yes, F16.
          Sometime next year the russians might be facing, not old soviet, but rather oldish American planes. The F16 is a very competent aircraft.
          Crimea won’t be safe.

  2. These maps explain the rationale behind Russia’s expansionism: 19th century thinking:

    It is dated and out of line with modern warfare tactics, especially air and space combat.
    NATO offered Russia membership as a way to assuage their paranoia but they rejected it, projecting their own unwillingness to abide by treaties unto others. Russia has never signed a treaty they didn’t break.

    They’re not about to start now.

    • It is indeed 19th century thinking. The whole time I read this article I kept thinking of Belgium’s Leopold II, who was upset that he couldn’t be one of the Great Powers colonizing the world because Belgium didn’t have a navy. He asked France and Spain etc. for one of their colonies, but they laughed at the idea. So he sent Henry Stanley into Africa and got the Congo. Obviously, invading one’s neighbors was more efficient for Russia.

      But in the 20th century airplanes came into existence, so I kept wondering why the article thinks Russia is supposed to be focused on naval power and not air power. Water is historically important for settlement and trade so I get why Russia would long for naval ports, but I don’t know enough about Russia to figure out why this article isn’t accounting for Vladivostok. Wikipedia says:

      For a long time, the Russian government was looking for a stronghold in the Far East; this role was played in turn by the settlements of Okhotsk, Ayan, Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky, and Nikolaevsk-on-Amur. By the middle of the 19th century, the search for the outpost had reached a dead end: none of the ports met the necessary requirement: to have a convenient and protected harbor next to important trade routes.

      After China was threatened with war on a second front by Governor-General of the Far East Nikolay Muraviev when China was suppressing the Taiping Rebellion. The Aigun Treaty was concluded by Muraviev’s forces, after which Russian exploration of the Amur region began, and later, as a result of the signing of the Treaty of Tientsin and the Convention of Peking, the territory of modern Vladivostok was annexed to Russia. The name Vladivostok appeared in the middle of 1859, was used in newspaper articles and denoted a bay.

      On June 20 (or July 2nd of the Gregorian calendar), 1860 the transport of the Siberian Military Flotilla “Mandzhur” under the command of Lieutenant-Commander Alexei Karlovich Shefner delivered a military unit to the Golden Horn Bay to establish a military post, which has now officially received the name of Vladivostok.

      But then again, perhaps it’s not the reporter whose focused on the 19th century, but Russia itself. Is air power really not an option at all?

      • No it’s not the Author of the Forbes article. Friedman (a respected geopolitics name) is articulating the russian view that drives their behavior, how they look out at the world.
        And that view is shaped by their history and geography and unwillingness to let go of the past. Putin has repeatedly referred to the past to justify his moves and ambitions; Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Great Northern War, the Great Patriotic War…
        (Notice the pattern?)

        Russia’s future ain’t great and it wasn’t going to be before the war.
        Neither was its present.
        All they have is their twisted, idealized past.
        He still pines for the empire of the Czars, of the Soviets, and thinks of the Collapse of the Soviets as the greatest tragedy ever.

        Russia’s geopolitics is focused on land because that’s all they have.
        (Lots of land, albeit crappy. And nukes. Lots of nukes built with stolen tech.)
        Russia may have a coast but it is effectively land locked. The artic ports (Murmansk) is unusable most of the year. The Baltic is controled by the swedes and danes, the Black Sea is effectively a salt water lake with one exit, controlled by the turks. Vladivostok? They mugged China for it 200 years ago. And the whole region is underpopulated, underdeveloped, useless.
        All they have is land and because their entire history is about the strong preying on the weak they are incapable of understanding the Post WWII Breton Woods order, that nobody *wants* their land, that it no longer is worth fighting over. Stuck in the past, they want the land of others.

        So they went to war.
        And have been undone by their underlying culture of oppression, corruption, and theft.They went to war without logistics, without proper millitary comms, without knowing how to do airpower, without understanding what they were doing. They thought it was 1968 in Czechoslovakia.

        They thought wrong. Putin was 8 years late. If Russia had kept on going back in 2014, when he took Crimea and Obama did nothing, he could’ve rolled all the way to the Polish border. But he didn’t because he didn’t have the troops or the guts.

        Ukraine didn’t have an army wotth beans in 2014 but he gave them 8 years to get one. Trained by the US and the Brits (who do honor their treaties and, since Clinton and Blair talked Ukraine into giving up their nukes in return for security guarantees from them and Russia, are now ethically obligated to do just that) and an army with 8 years of experience fighting russian proxies. An army that has noncoms, secure comms, drones and understands mobility warfare and thunder runs. A 21st century army.

        The war was unnecessary but after the russians have shown the world what they do at war (mass murder of civilians, tape and pillage of eashing machines and cars, torture chambers for children) it is now a war that can only end with total russian defeat, even if the aftermath is likely to leave russia, and the world, worse off. It will be fought to the bitter end, even if nukes are unleashed.

        19th Century thinking has no place in the world anymore.

          • When your neck is on the line you quickly discover who you are. Often to your own surprise.
            History will judge all involved.

        • The thing is that Siberia isn’t useless. There are vast mineral resources there, if you’ve got the tech and cash to get to them, which is why the Chinese have been all-too-eager to move in as Russia’s new supplier and customer after the West put sanctions in place.

          Moscow may soon find itself an effective vassal of Beijing, and I wish both parties the joy of it.

          • Siberia is *only* useful if you have the tech and mountains of capital to keep it running. (Keep an eye of the “mysterious” explosions at russian refineries. A few more and they’ll be choking on crude. So far they’re shutting down the southern wells but if they have to shut down any Siberian wells, they’ll be down for good.)

            And no, China has neither. Not really. Their economy isn’t all its cracked up to be. For starters, we all knew China cooked its stats; now we know by how much, 35% annually, resulting in an economy that is 60% smaller than reported. But its debt isn’t smaller nor its millitary spending. Add in their housing bubble and aging population.


            And while Putin is already under X’s thumb (even Lukashenko is publicly standing up to him) it won’t last or matter; China has its own problems.

            Between the looming finsncial crisis, COVID, the demographic crisis, and the tech embargo, it wouldn’t matter if they rolled into Siberia; they couldn’t do anything with it.

            The ’20’s are going to be crappy for everybody but the three biggest messes are Germany, Russia, and China.

        • Thanks for the clarification; I mistook the author as pulling a Thomas Friedman (the NYT columnist who declared the Ukraine conflict is the first real world war). But in fact the writer’s first name is George. Sigh; I should have paid closer attention.

          • Google messes them up from time to time.

            George has two really good books on geopolitics: the first I saw–THE NEXT 100 YEARS–is actually a nice tutorial on the methodology of the field (useful for world building) and on national strategic imperatives. The newest–THE STORM BEFORE THE CALM– focuses on the Crisis of the 20’s, variously predicted in broad terms, here now.


            Lately I’ve been deep diving into the Peter Zeihan books and online videos. Also very useful for worldbuiding. He’s a light read, fun, but he gets pretty detailed on what you need to have a stable economy. (On Earth, and on a future space colony. Both interest me.) He is also a very good speaker who surfaces thought provoking facts that get glossed over by the media and IdiotPoliticians™.

            Both are right in my wheelhouse.

            • Thanks for the recommendations. I’ve saved them for the Worldbuilding folder in my bookmarks. “The End of the World is Just Beginning” looks particularly interesting, since it addresses supply chain issues. I thought in 2020 that the benefit of the lockdowns would be a push for autarky for vital goods, and an end to outsourcing everything to China. But alas…

              • Check your library. They should have most of them. That’s how one of my friends got to read Zeihan’s latest. They’re not cheap so its best to try fitst.

                Don’t fret about China’s supply chains; they *are* being replaced but you don’t move/duplicate/rework such baroque systems overnight. It’ll take years unless China implodes from the new COVID variants. An extreme case of “what goes around…”



                Smart companies have been diversifying their chains since before the pandemic (at least 2010, when China in a snit cut off Japan from their rare earth metals). Others started in 2020. Apple is starting today.

                Mexico is spoken for, Vietnam is nearly tapped out, India isn’t but they’re a horrible place for foreign investment.

                Apple isn’t totally screwed but iPhone 14 production is short 6 Million and counting. An object lesson for the other laggards.

                Beyond that, a good portion of German heavy industry is shut down and/or moving. To the US south. Regionalization of chains and neoimperialism in africa is moving forward. All on schedule; the war just made it more urgent.

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