Sunday, 19 May 2024

What Russia’s Claim to Capture Bakhmut Means for the Ukraine War

Russia’s claim of victory in Bakhmut suggests that the brutal urban combat that marked the deadliest battle of its war in Ukraine might be over. But what comes next is far from clear.

While Moscow is trumpeting a “Mission Accomplished” moment, Ukraine — even as it insists Bakhmut has not completely fallen — sees an opening to seize the initiative from the outskirts if Russian forces are no longer pressing forward inside the city limits.

Russia’s capture of Bakhmut would be a powerful symbolic success for Moscow, the first Ukrainian city it has seized since Lysychansk last summer, and a setback for Kyiv, which expended precious ammunition and sent some of its most capable forces to try to thwart Russia’s devastating monthslong assault.

But the city is in ruins, and controlling it would not necessarily help Moscow toward its larger stated goal — conquering the entire eastern region of Donbas — now that Ukrainian troops have worn out Russian forces and broken through their defenses in some areas to the north and south of the city.

Those gains will allow Ukrainian troops to continue raining artillery on Russian forces trying to hold Bakhmut, according to Ukrainian officials. And military analysts say that if Moscow continues to send reinforcements to defend the city, that could weaken Russian forces’ ability to hold off a broader counteroffensive that Ukraine says it is about to begin.

A British defense intelligence assessment on Saturday said Moscow had redeployed “up to several battalions to reinforce” Bakhmut, calling it “a notable commitment” for Russia’s heavily stretched combat forces in Ukraine.

Among the questions for Russia are the intentions of Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, head of the Wagner mercenary company that spearheaded the urban fighting, who on Saturday declared victory in Bakhmut and said his soldiers would withdraw from the city by Thursday. Military analysts said it was unclear whether Mr. Prigozhin could pull out so abruptly along a hotly contested front line without dire consequences for the Russians in the city.

It also was unclear whether Russian reinforcements deployed toward Bakhmut would rotate in for Wagner troops or bolster Russia’s faltering defenses on the city’s outskirts.

In recent days, Russian forces clawing their way westward through the city fought through a final neighborhood of high-rise apartment blocks, reaching an expanse of garages, farmhouses and open fields to the west. The Ukrainian military said on Sunday it still holds several buildings in that area.

But even as Kyiv’s forces stepped back from the block-by-block fighting, they brought in reinforcements to shore up rear positions, securing roads and supply lines west of Bakhmut. And they focused on attacking Russian positions to the north and south of the city. A battle on May 6 breached Russian lines south of the village of Ivanivske and forced Russian soldiers into a disorganized retreat.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, said on Sunday that Ukrainian forces had recently recaptured high ground on the city’s outskirts, and that those advances would “really complicate the enemy’s presence in Bakhmut.”

If Ukrainian forces can continue their counterattack, it would put Russia on the defensive across nearly all of the front line, which stretches for hundreds of miles. For months, Bakhmut has been among the few places where Russia was gaining ground.

Ukrainian commanders say their goal all along in Bakhmut was to pin down the Russian Army in a protracted fight, kill as many of its soldiers as possible and buy time for Ukraine to prepare and rearm — with Western weapons — for a wider counteroffensive.

A Russian capture of Bakhmut “will mean nothing, actually,” predicted Colonel Serhiy Hrabsky, a commentator on the war for the Ukrainian news media. “The Russians have exhausted their offensive capabilities and that is why they so desperately declare they have captured Bakhmut.”

Speaking to reporters at the Group of 7 summit in Japan on Sunday, President Volodymyr Zelensky touched on the strategic meaning of the battle in wearing down the Russian Army. All that remained in the ruined city, he said, was “a lot of dead Russians.”

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