Bakhmut Will Fall. Here’s What Russia Will Do Next


Vladimir Putin’s troops may be closing in on Bakhmut but the losses his forces have suffered there could shape what he can do next in his full-scale invasion.,IAB12&brsafe=n&brsafe_pf=n&adexclusion=[nw]_mobkoi_equinor_negative_keywords,generic_brand_safety,generic_negative_keywords,gm_negative_keywords,pfizer_brand_safety,toyota_negative_keywords,ukraine_war_brand_safety,mobkoi_equinor_negative_keywords&ivt_fq=0#amp=1

Moscow’s troops are on the cusp of taking the city in the eastern Donetsk region fought over for months, of which they reportedly control half. Amid rumors of a Ukrainian retreat Western officials suggested would do Kyiv no harm, President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted his troops would stay to prevent Russian forces from moving on “to other towns.”

Russia’s effort in Bakhmut has been supported by the Wagner Group of mercenaries. Its financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, keen to project that his troops can do better than regular Russian forces, said the east of the city had been captured. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday the city could fall “in the coming days” but that its capture by Moscow would not be a “turning point.”

“There’s an ongoing public split between Wagner and the Russian military, and both sides are looking for symbolic wins,” said Sean McFate, a U.S. Army veteran and adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

Bakhmut will fall, what's next
A local resident pushes his bicycle down a street in Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on January 6, 2023. Russia and Ukraine have both suffered heavy casualties in the fight for Bakhmut which has been ongoing for months.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/GETTY

“It’s a matter of honor for the leadership in charge and they’re paying with the lives of people. If Bakhmut falls, it won’t lead necessarily to decisive victory for one side or the other,” McFate told Newsweek.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S.-based think tank, said on Wednesday if Russian forces took the city, they probably would not have the mechanized forces to advance further, as they lack the combat power and reinforcements needed to exploit a breakthrough.

William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador and senior fellow at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, told Newsweek that if Russian forces take the rest of Bakhmut, the Ukrainians will fall back to well-prepared positions on higher ground west of the city.

“It’s tough enough in urban warfare to make progress because you have to do it block by block,” he said, but on higher ground, “for Russia to make further advances could be more problematical.”

He noted how in 2022, Ukraine had hinted it would launch a counteroffensive in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which spurred a movement of Russian troops in the south, before Kyiv’s troops sprung a surprise and took the rest of Kharkiv oblast to the north-east.

Ukrainian Deception

“We should presume that the Ukrainians will try to use some deception in their counteroffensive,” Courtney said, which would work best as a combined arms operation, using infantry, armor, artillery and aviation.

“One would expect that the Russians, if they do take all of Bakhmut, are going to be focusing attention on preparing for a Ukrainian counteroffensive and not be caught short the way they were last fall.”

Ukraine’s troop losses in Bakhmut were only one fifth of Russian casualties, according to a NATO source, reported by CNN. Meanwhile, Russian troops have closed in on Bakhmut from the north, south and east, leaving only a narrow supply route in from the west for Ukraine’s troops.

Zev Faintuch, senior intelligence analyst at security firm Global Guardian, said whether Bakhmut falls or not will depend on decisions made by Ukraine’s General Staff, which has the advantage of dealing with far fewer troop losses than Russia.

This gives Ukraine the option of not having to deploy extra troops to the Bakhmut front, allowing its other forces to regenerate and prepare for the coming offensive.

Faintuch said that if Russia took Bakhmut, its next move could either be an advance west along the T0504 highway heading west to the town of Kostiantynivka, advancing northwest to Sloviansk, or pausing and digging in.

“None of these options are great for Russia,” he told Newsweek, because a Russian move northwest or west, “will be completely unsupported and become vulnerable to attack.”

Ukrainian crewman
A Ukrainian crewman rides in a T-64 tank, as it makes its way from the town of Chasiv Yar, Donetsk region to Bakhmut on March 9, 2023. The battle for the Donetsk city has seen Russia suffer huge losses.SERGEY SHESTAK/GETTY IMAGES

“To make matters worse, both routes are uphill, giving the Ukrainians highly defensible ground. Staying put would have political blowback. No matter what Russia elects to do, it will be opening itself up to a Ukrainian counterattack,” he added.

What Ukraine does after the end of the battle for Bakhmut depends on where Russian forces go, Faintuch said. While a counteroffensive is potentially coming, it may take a few more months until enough soldiers have trained on the new Western-provided equipment to mount a largescale maneuver.

“That said, smaller counteroffensives could take place based on the tactical situation. Ukrainian planners, likely with some assistance, have done an exceptional job so far and we can expect them to continue to counter at opportune junctures.”

Former British military intelligence officer Philip Ingram said that if the Russians took Bakhmut, they would consolidate their forces there and Russian regular forces might relieve the Wagner Group, although tensions between the two entities will remain.

“Russia will then move on to attacking the next town in the same way—leveling all its buildings to the ground and try and create the conditions to post the Ukrainian defenders back again,” he told Newsweek.

Ingram believes that the Ukrainian forces have successfully fixed the Russian troops on Bakhmut, which buys Kyiv time to train its personnel on the new Western tank and infantry fighting vehicles ahead of a counterattack of their own, “probably in May or June.”

The fight for Bakhmut and its surrounding towns has been costly for the Russian military. One Western estimate is that Russia has suffered up to 30,000 casualties in the battle, and Ukraine’s losses, while believed to be far lower, are still considerable.

Despite the high cost-benefit assessment, Bakhmut’s capture would provide a much-needed public relations boost for Putin. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the city offered “symbolic” rather than “strategic” value.

“It is possible that a Ukrainian retreat from Bakhmut would free up Russian troops to fortify positions in the south ahead of an anticipated counteroffensive from Ukraine in coming months,” Joshua Tucker, a fellow at the Kroll Institute, told Newsweek.

“On the other hand, it may actually require a non-trivial amount of troops to hold Bakhmut in the future,” he added. “It is not a foregone conclusion that Bakhmut will fall to the Russians—stranger things have happened in this war


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