Over the past 48 hours, there have been a succession of reports about Ukrainian advances in the areas north of the city of Bakhmut. Multiple reports indicate that Russian forces have withdrawn to positions further to the north of the city in the vicinity of the Berkhivs'ke Reservoir.
There has been almost a year of fighting over the city and the region immediately to its north, east and south. It is a battle that seeks to control a small city, with minimal strategic value, but which has attained high political value because of several visits by the Ukrainian president. It also gained political value because it offered one of the few areas of possible success for the rushed and poorly conceived Russian 2023 eastern offensives. And of course, the Wagner versus Russian Army aspects of the battle have also played a part in Bakhmut gaining attention, as well as absorbing far more military forces than pure military prudence might dictate.
I have previously examined the possible legacy of this battle, and you can listen to that here.
The Ukrainian assaults, resulting in about 17 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory liberated from the Russians, are some of the most significant observed in 2023. With reports describing around 1000 Ukrainian troops and 40 tanks involved, it is likely that a couple of battlegroups, or even an entire Ukrainian brigade, were involved. Of course, there would have been artillery, EW and other forms of support as well.
What Are We Seeing Around Bakhmut?
The question, then, is what does this all mean?
There are several explanations for the recent Ukrainian attacks north of Bakhmut and their success in seizing back ground around the city. I will explore each of them below and then provide an overall assessment of what we have seen (noting we only see a partial picture) and how it might impact on Russian and Ukrainian operations in the coming weeks and months.
I. It is just a local counterattack. This is one possible explanation for the events of the last couple of days. The Ukrainians have demonstrated the ability to learn and exploit opportunities in a much better fashion than the Russians have throughout the war. And certainly, the gains made in the past 48 hours will have required a keen tactical eye by several commanders on the spot. Ukrainian commanders have probably identified weaknesses in the Russian forces in this area in the last few days (or even weeks) and selected the optimal time to strike.
Adding to the case that this is just a local counterattack is that the northern Ukrainian assault was not accompanied by other large attacks in other sectors of the city. While according to the most recent ISW update, Russian milbloggers have reported Ukrainian troops attacking towards Khromove (3km west of Bakhmut), and the 3rd Brigade has attacked south of Bakhmut, I don’t think that this offers any real evidence of a much broader operational push. These are more likely to be counterattacks that are part of the normal conduct of a larger defensive operation, where local commanders are given the authority to attack where the opportunity presents.
II. The Russians have culminated. Military doctrine defines culmination as "the point at which continuing the attack is no longer possible and the force must consider reverting to a defensive posture or attempting an operational pause". It has been clear for some weeks now that the 2023 offensive overseen by Gerasimov, which is almost a template of his 2022 invasion model (4-5 axes of advance, none of which with decisive force), has been a failure. It has not captured any significant objective of military or strategic value and has occupied a very small additional part of Ukraine. It has also squandered massive amounts of manpower and material which Russia needs to defend those parts of Ukraine it occupies.
So, with this as background, are the Russian losses north of Bakhmut the initial signs that the Russian forces in this area have culminated and are unable to sustain offensive operations? Possibly. But, at the same time as Russian forces were withdrawing under pressure from the Ukrainian assault, they continued to make small gains in fighting through the central and western parts of Bakhmut. Multiple sources report that the Russians still continue to conduct attack in these areas. For reference, I have included the maps from @War_Mapper and @MilitaryLandNet below.
Consequently, while the Russians many be close to culminating in their attack on Bkehmut, they retain some tactical momentum. However, the overall Russian offensive in the east - an operational level campaign - probably has culminated.
III. The Ukrainian counter offensive has begun. If I had a dollar for every time I was asked where and when the Ukrainian counter offensive is starting, I would already be living on a private island somewhere! The only real certainties about the Ukrainian offensives to come are that they will occur somewhere in Ukraine, probably in multiple locations and that they will probably surprise us (and the Russians) in one way or another.
The reality is that it will only be in retrospect that we will fully understand when the official ‘Preliminary Phase’ of their offensive operations has begun. Strategic planning, preparation and shaping began back in 2022. The Ukrainian requests for more equipment, training, and stockpiling had clearly commenced before Christmas last year. Commander in Chief, General Zaluznhy was quite clear in telegraphing the offensives to come when he stated in a Decemeber 2022 interview with The Economist that:
May the soldiers in the trenches forgive me, it’s more important to focus on the accumulation of resources right now for the more protracted and heavier battles that may begin next year.
So, for all the reports of strikes and ‘shaping’ activities being undertaken by the Ukrainians over the past few weeks, the reality is that the Ukrainians have been conducting strategic shaping for six months in preparation for their next major series of offensives. Part of this is probably a massive deception campaign to ensure the Russians do not appreciate where the main effort for the Ukrainian might fall and when it actually starts.
As to whether these attacks in Bakhmut are indicative that the Ukrainian offensive has begun, my inclination is that does not indicate that. However, the ongoing defence of Bakhmut could be a key element of the Ukrainian preparations for their offensive because of how it has fixed Russian attention and drawn in Russian forces that could have been used more wisely elsewhere.
A final, and possibly related, point on the Ukrainian offensives to come. In the past 24 hours, President Zelensky has released these two tweets. They are very different to his normal social media products, and could portend major events in the short term.
Only Time Will Tell
The reality is that we only ever have a partial view of events in war. The war in Ukraine is no different in this regard from any other conflict in history. No matter the level of transparency offered by new military and civilian sensors and analysis, the fog and friction of war remains a key element of battles, operations and wars. Having lots of information does not always make us wiser about what is actually occurring on the ground.
As such, with incomplete information it is difficult to draw a conclusive view on the events of the past 48 hours around Ukraine. The Ukrainian attacks are most likely to be local counterattack activity, that is occurring against the background of higher level final preparations for the Ukrainian offensives to come.
There are some final conclusions we might draw.
First, the attack in northern Bakhmut appears to have been a combined arms mechanised operation. It would have provided useful insights for those Ukrainian soldiers and leaders training, rehearsing and preparing for the offensives to come. And it provides a good morale boost for local Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut, and for the Ukrainians more generally.
Second, it will have provided additional insights into the state of Russian military morale and capability around Bakhmut, but possibly more broadly. The reports of Wagner mercenaries shooting at withdrawing Russian troops (if true) will spread through the ranks on both sides quickly. It is unlikely to improve Russian morale, and will hopefully result in more Russian red-on-red incidents in the near future. It will probably give heart to Ukrainian soldiers, knowing the cohesion and motivation of their enemy is being continually degraded by these issues.
Third, the attacks north of Bakhmut (and those in other areas) are indicative that the Ukrainian commanders at Bahkhmut are confident that the high water mark of Russian operations there is either near or has already passed. At the very least, it may indicate how brittle the Russian’s tactical, and possibly operational, position in the east is.
Despite the uncertainty about the true meaning of these Ukrainian attacks around Bakhmut, I think one thing is certain. The attacks at Bakhmut show the Ukrainians are ready for a fight. And if they show the same creativity, determination, leadership and purpose they have throughout this war, the Russians are in a huge amount of trouble.
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Thanks for your insights.
Has there been any reports on the Ukrainian’s ability to breach Russia’s prepared defences in this counter attack, or was this a case of taking back a “grey area” only recently captured by Wagner?
My hope, of course, is that Russia has wasted much time and material in the construction of their mini Maginot line, but some data that it is actually ineffective (or as good as all things Russian have proven to be thus far) would be comforting.
Perhaps there will not be a grand strategic advance. Perhaps the most important anctions Ukraine can take are those which convince its backers to continue support. If Ukraine showed competence in several modes of combat that might satisfy the doubters.
Breaking the Russian line at Bakhmut conveys one sort of competence. A swift moving, “open-field running” offensive around Mykolaiv is another mode of combat that could demonstrate uccesful command and control with mobile brigades . And perhaps most intriguing would be the Ukrainian use of recently donated small boats to perform raiding operations along the Crimean coast- perhaps after practice on the long spit of low land between Crimea and Kherson. If combined arms operations are difficult, so too are amphibious operations. If they can perform all three modes of combat- even at demonstration level of scale- I imagine they would garner new respect and signal that the Trench War will not be a permanent feature.