The heroic Ukrainian resistance withstood Russia’s frontal attack on Bakhmut for nearly a year – however, at a huge cost, both in lives and in the devastation of a once-thriving city.
But it has limited strategic value – so why did the two sides keep fighting over it? What were all these sacrifices for and to what end?
“The tragedy of modern warfare is that young men die fighting each other instead of their real enemies at home in the capitals” – Edward Abbey.
In the West, politicians decide on end states – the required outcome – and professional military minds set priorities, strategies and match troops to the task.
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However, in Russia, President Vladimir Poutine is all-powerful; military strategy is subject to political interference, and battlefield tactics are to “do what we’ve always done” – despite the threat – and if that doesn’t work, double back!
Armies generally advance quickly over open terrain, but urban warfare is difficult.
The inexperienced and unmotivated Russian army made very limited progress initially at Bakhmut, suffering up to seven times the casualty rate of the Ukrainian defenders, and Putin worried about how casualties could undermine confidence Russian interior.
THE Wagner Group offered Putin an alternative – to use “disposable” convicts for the toughest fights and save his newly mobilized army for the battles to come.
Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozin made slow but steady progress with the Bakhmut assault.
But he was not part of the army’s chain of command – and growing friction between General Valery Gerasimov (head of the Russian army), Prigozin and Putin, all of whom had their own unaligned goals, escalated into a war of egos.
As a result, Gerasimov prioritized the limited supplies of Russian ammunition to the regular army, thus leaving the mercenaries even more vulnerable and eroding Prigozin’s combat power and influence.
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Ukraine had to avoid being drawn into a war of attrition in which the greater part (Russia) would win – inevitably.
Indeed, recently leaked documents show that US intelligence had been advising Ukraine for months to withdraw (from Bakhmut) and preserve its forces for the coming offensive.
President Volodymyr Zelenskywas that Ukraine had no choice but to kill as many Russian fighters as possible whenever the opportunity presented itself – if not in Bakhmut, then where?
The tragedy of Bakhmut is that the battle isn’t about capturing vital ground – it’s about maximizing enemy casualties.
The fall of Bakhmut will not bring the end of the war any closer, nor will it have moved the front line substantially.
Yet over 100,000 Russians and well over 20,000 Ukrainians have – to date – been killed or injured in this crushing war of attrition.
The vast military cemeteries of France are poignant. Combatants in World Wars I and II suffered unimaginable casualties with minimal movement from the front line; the horrors we hoped for were now confined to history.
Less than a century later, the ravages of war are back in Europe.
As one of the last survivors of World War I, Harry Patch, said, “War is organized murder, and nothing else.”