The Great Game #4 - The Bakhmut Bloodbath
What to make of the Russians making headway around Bakhmut and Ukraine striking deep into Russian hinterland? And what dilemmas await the West?
The Battle of Bakhmut
Let’s begin in Bakhmut. A city of some 70,000 inhabitants pre-invasion, built by Peter the Great, around the local salt deposits in 1701. Peter was the great modernizer and westernizer of Russia, so it is perhaps a bit ironic that Putin’s self-proclaimed ‘war against the West’ has come down to a bloody battle at this spot.
Why Bakhmut? It sits on the elbow of the Donetsk-Luhansk axis, and is a key logistical hub of the Donbass region. It would essentially be a dagger pointed at those two key cities if the Ukrainians could hold onto it until a potential spring offensive. Still, it is remarkable that the Russians are throwing everything but the stolen sinks into the Bakhmut gamble. More on that later.
The battle is shaping up to be one of the bloodiest and dirtiest of the entire war. Russia is throwing tens of thousands of men into the meat grinder and is doubling down with Iranian-built kamikaze drones and heavy artillery barrages. The Ukrainians are hanging on by their teeth, but currently the battle seems to be swinging in Russia’s favor. My bet is that the Russians will partially surround Bakhmut during the winter and force a Ukrainian retreat.
How does this play into everything else that’s going on in Ukraine?
Russians Running Dry?
For the last 2-3 months, Russia has engaged in an intensified strategic bombing campaign – that we might even call a terror bombing campaign. They have been targeting Ukrainian water, gas and electricity connections in an attempt to freeze and starve the civilian population into surrender.
As many have pointed out, heavy strategic bombing campaigns generally don’t win wars: it didn’t really affect Hitlers fighting spirit, didn’t make the Viet Cong lay down their arms and certainly didn’t strangle the Taliban into submission. Counter-examples exist, of course. The two main ones being the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the British strike on Copenhagen in 1807, but they were both much more devastating relative to the size and ressources of the target country than the Russian bombing campaign of late 2022. So however tragic and devastating, the Russian strategic bombing will not influence the Ukrainian fighting spirit or the outcome of the war in any meaningful way, in my assessment.
Many spectators have suggested that Russia might be running out of precision munitions after ‘wasting’ them on civilian targets. While I agree that the strategic bombing campaign is largely a waste, I don’t expect Russia running dry on ammo anytime soon. See this account from their counterpart in the Ukrainian army:
While the use of Iskander missiles on civilian targets is very stupid and wasteful, Russia has such an enormous stockpile of S-300’s that they can keep up the pressure on the civilian population and still reign havoc on the Ukranian armed forces. A factor in these calculation is of course the supply of heavy ground- and air-based munitions from the Russian allies aroundt he globe. Even if China doesn’t open up the goodie bag, both North Korea and Iran can provide a quite substantial number of rockets for the Russians to throw at the poor Ukranians.
Ukrainians Striking Deep
This week we were also rattled by the Ukrainian drone strikes on Russian strategic air bases in Engels and Ryazan - up to 600 km away from the Ukrainian border. The ability of Ukraine to perform surgical strikes so deep into Russian territory is a great testament to Ukrainian capabilities but is likely also a result of Russia underestimating those capabilities. They clearly weren’t expecting any strikes that far from the front and simply had their guard down.
The attacks strike a delicate balance for the Ukrainians. The West are extremely scared of their weapons being used to attack Russian territory and it would be a very, very bad look for the Ukrainians to cause Russian civilian casualties. Ukraine needs to maintain their “good guy” image in this conflict, but at the same time exercise their legitimate right to attack Russian bases.
I don’t see the Ukrainians performing a long series of strategic attacks deep within Russian territory. This strike (combined with the Kerch Bridge explosion) demonstrates the strength of Ukrainian capabilities and forces Russia to protect their home bases with anti-air artillery and further personnel. That being said, expect a few Ukrainian strikes on Russian soil here and there - just to keep the Kremlin on its toes.
Fortified Front Line
So, to round it up – Russia’s current strategy is two-pronged: take Bakhmut and make the Winter as gruesome as possible for the Ukrainian population. This reinforces my view that the Russians are making one “last” push to set themselves up on a defensible and “freeze-able” frontline along the Dniepr river, east towards Bakhmut, and then north through the marshes and forests north of Severodonetsk. The frontline behind the Dniepr is fairly easy to defend, and there are simply too few roads and railways north of Severodonetsk to sustain a major Ukrainian assault. This means that the central section will be critical. It also explains why Putin is eager to claim Bakhmut as a logistical hub and center of operations for the Donbass front.
This ties in well with reports from all along the front line that the Russians are building trenches and preparing for a winter without major offensives aside from Bakhmut. In my assessment, the Russian strategy for 2023 is to fortify and hold a stable front line (as shown above) in a hope to slowly regain the initiative and limiting the need for further mobilization. I believe Putin would be quite satisfied with the current status which prevents Ukraine from joining EU and NATO while simultaneously allowing Russia to de-intensify the war effort through limited de-mobilization if the front line “freezes” in easily defensible terrain.
Dilemma for the West
This potentially leaves quite a dilemma for the West. Will we continue to pour weapons and ammunition into Ukraine, if the war slows down? How long will we continue to support the Ukrainians so vigorously if there is no end in sight? The West is not well-adapted to gray-area conflicts fluctuating somewhere between war and peace. We like to have war and then peace - not a little bit of both, and that confusion will unevitably spread dissent and disagreements between Western nations. I believe this is what the enigmatic Putin is currently betting on.
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Russians are famous for their preference in winter warfare. What makes you, Mikkel, believe the Russians would "take a break" over winter?
I believe the Russians were expecting a short and swift "special operation" late winter in the beginning of 2022. That went very much not so. Since then I think they have basically been waiting for winter to commence a full blown war on Ukraine and as I see it they have been "prep-bombing" all of Ukraines infrastructure to serve that goal.
I think, contrary to you, Mikkel, that we will see wild escalation of the war from here all the rest of the winter. Likely even nuclear to leverage up to western interference.
No personal preferences to Ukraine or Russia. Purely objective analysis.
thank you, extremely well-written and nuanced.