Did Ukraine err in refusing to withdraw from Bakhmut?

Ukraine says its future could hinge on the brutal battles currently raging over Bakhmut, but there are growing divisions between Kiev officials and some Western military analysts over the best approach to take in what could be a period. decisive in the conflict.

For months, Ukraine’s defense of the eastern city held back and exhausted Russian forces while serving as a potent symbol of the country’s defiance.

Now, as the onslaught on Moscow intensifies, a number of observers question whether Kiev’s decision to reinforce the area rather than retreat is driven more by political desire to avoid defeat. resounding only by military logic.

A long-speculated Ukrainian withdrawal from the battered city has failed to materialize, with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his military leaders instead betting they can gain critical time and advantage for a future counteroffensive by doubling down.

Ukrainian officials redoubled their efforts to defend Bakhmut, defying expectations of a retreat.Aris Messinis/AFP via Getty Images

Russian forces, led for months by mercenary fighters from the private military company Wagner and reinforced by newly mobilized reservists, have intensified their winter campaign to seize the city despite massive casualties.

It’s a key award for the Kremlin and winning it would be Russia’s first big win in nearly a year.

This relentless pressure left Ukrainian troops surrounded on three sides and facing an increasingly dire situation.

“The Ukrainians should have pulled out weeks ago,” defense analyst Konrad Muzyka, director of Poland-based Rochan Consulting that specializes in Russia and Belarus, told NBC News.

“It just doesn’t make sense to defend the city right now,” said Muzyka, who recently visited the region with colleagues.

He set out a view that has become increasingly common among some keen observers of the conflict: the defense of Bakhmut was crucial both strategically and symbolically, but the situation has deteriorated to the point that it can now be more expensive than it is worth.

Kyiv was now suffering such heavy losses, Muzyka said, that she could set back her own hopes for successful advances in the future.

Russia’s winter offensive was hampered by the Ukrainian defense, as well as muddy and frozen conditions.Sergei Shestak / AFP – Getty Images

There is now only one main road out of Ukrainian-held Bakhmut, with the mining center that once housed around 80,000 people reduced to artillery craters and muddy trenches.

But Ukrainian officials have doubled down on strategy, insisting that holding the town was in fact essential to their future operations, even as casualties mount on both sides.

Ukraine’s future hinges on the outcome of the battles raging in Bakhmut and neighboring regions, Zelenskyy said this week, stressing his commitment to standing firm in the city.

“There was a clear position from the entire command: Reinforce this sector and destroy the occupiers to the maximum,” he said in his nightly video address on Tuesday.

Kyiv officials insisted the battle restricted Russian advances by forcing Moscow to send troops and equipment to Bakhmut, while setting the stage for future Ukrainian advances by giving their own reserves more time to settle. prepare.

Their position received public support in Washington on Wednesday.

“Ukraine has pinned Russian forces in this city and they are imposing very high costs on the Wagner Group and the Russian regular army,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said during the meeting. of a press briefing.

NBC News has contacted the Ukrainian government for further comment.

For its part, Moscow hopes Bakhmut could pave the way for capturing the rest of its surrounding region. The city lies in the northeastern part of Donetsk province, the half of Ukraine’s industrial heartland of Donbass which has become the central target of the Kremlin offensive.

With that in mind, some analysts said Ukraine’s approach made sense.

“The idea of ​​the Ukrainians is not just to kill as many Russians as possible, but to fix their troops there so that they cannot deploy them elsewhere,” said Rajan Menon, director of the Washington think tank. Defense Priorities, adding that Ukraine was well aware of its position in Bakhmut and was taking a calculated risk.

“The question is, can you hold the line and inflict damage at a cost that commanders in Ukraine find acceptable,” Menon said, “is that necessarily a disastrous thing to do?”

The fight for Bakhmut has become one of the most intense ground battles in Europe since World War II.Roman Chop/AP

Russian forces relentlessly bombarded the city with artillery and waves of infantry attacks, pushing more and more new recruits and even some of their best forces into the fight alongside ex-convicts and prisoners. Wagner Group mercenaries.

Led by oligarch and longtime Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner has claimed dozens of lives for every small fraction of land seized, analysts say.

They now control most of eastern Bakhmut, with a river running through the town becoming the front line, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.

Ukraine’s limited resources could therefore be better spent elsewhere, Muzyka and others argue, with the determination to cling to an increasingly perilous position in Bakhmut also threatening its ability to defend other positions in the region. .

Bakhmut has become a fortress of symbolic value similar to Mariupol, with its survival a point of national pride. But the fight there also carries weight in Russia, where Prigozhin has become a face of war and has engaged in a public feud with military leaders in Moscow.

Chief Wagner blamed the Kremlin’s top brass for not supplying his fighters with enough ammunition and showcased the ferocity of Ukraine’s defensive effort as it seeks a high-profile victory.

Securing Bakhmut is now key for Prigozhin, experts said.

Bakhmut was shelled relentlessly, forcing civilians to flee or spend their days sheltered in basements.Roman Chop/AP

“He was able, in fact, to turn this very difficult battle into something that, in fact, benefits him,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and founder and director of the political analysis firm A. Politics.

But Ukraine’s persistence has taken a heavy toll on the Russians.

In a video shared by Sota, an independent Russian media outlet, a group of women who say they are the mothers and wives of men from a division sent to fight in the east plead with President Vladimir Putin to bring home those who have been “thrown”. like meat to storm fortified areas. NBC News has not verified their claims.

However, kyiv officials may not be the only ones hoping the brutal fighting continues.

Some of Moscow’s military leaders may be eager for Ukraine to continue its defensive efforts, Stanovaya suggested, so that Prigozhin will see his forces wane and with them his influence weakened.

“It’s useful that the Ukrainians decide to stay because that way they will waste all of Wagner’s people,” Stanovaya said.

Wagner’s offensive on Bakhmut “seems to be nearing its climax,” the ISW said in an update Wednesday that supports the idea. “Manpower, artillery and equipment losses” will likely limit the group’s “ability to gain substantial territory in battles for urban areas,” the ISW added.

Russian advances in the region would likely depend on army reserves in the future, the ISW said.

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