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The Battle of Bakhmut
Is the End Game Approaching?
The Battle of Bakhmut has now raged since May 2022. Bakhmut was also the site of a battle between Ukrainian Armed Forces and the forces of the separatist Donetsk People Republic in 2014. A mix of Ukrainian special forces and national guard personnel expelled the separatists in July 2014.
The current battle had its origins in the 2022 Russian attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in the Sievierodonetsk area from May 2022. The battle escalated in the second half of 2022 and became the site of the Wagner Group’s focus for its operations in Ukraine. The battle has also seen trench warfare, massive artillery barrages and human wave attacks. We may live in the digital age with drone warfare and global influence operations, but old ideas of warfare are always just beneath the surface in every military institution.
For Ukraine, holding onto Bakhmut has had both political and military imperatives. This battle has been invested with political value by both sides – although only one President (Zelensky) has had the courage to visit his troops there. The operations around Bakhmut have also permitted the Ukrainian armed forces to attrit the Russian forces in the east. This has forced the Russians to continue committing resources to the battle for a town with little strategic value. The battle has absorbed Russian units – newly mobilised troops as well as more experienced professional forces - that might have been used elsewhere in the nascent Russian offensive against the Ukrainians in eastern Ukraine.
The battle has blooded the Russians (both Army and Wagner forces) in a way that they have not experienced since the Second World War. According to some reports, their slow, methodical and frankly, unnecessary, campaign for Bakhmut has resulted in over ten thousand Russian casualties. It has also resulted in significant casualties for the Ukrainians, who have had to balance defending here to attrit the Russians, defend in other locations while also building the quality and quantity of forces for the offensives to come in 2023.
Despite the very large number of casualties suffered by the Russians, they have slowly but surely begun to take ground in and around Bakhmut. This is strangling (but not yet stopping) the Ukrainian capacity to defend the city. Because of the massive human and material resources expended by Russians on this objective, the situation may soon necessitate a Ukrainian withdrawal. At some point, the Ukrainian Armed Forces might decide that they have achieved all they can by remaining in their defensive locations around Bakhmut, and that force preservation for the battles that follow is more important. The Ukrainian military appears to have telegraphed this possibility in recent days.
Therefore, what might a withdrawal by the Ukrainians from Bakhmut look like?
In October 2022, I explored how tactical withdrawals are conducted by military forces, and the considerations of such withdrawals in the context of the Russians in western Kherson. I will apply a similar approach to exploring the considerations for a possible Ukrainian Armed Forces withdrawal from Bakhmut.
Withdrawals, which are considered a ‘retrograde operation’ in US Army doctrine, are designed to allow a force to disengage from the enemy and redeploy on a new mission or to a new location, while minimising casualties. The concepts of disengagement and minimising casualties is important, and I will return to these subjects shortly. It is important to note that a withdrawal can be used to cleverly draw an enemy into a situation less advantageous to them. As Australian Army doctrine notes: “Withdrawal is a task employed regularly during mobile defence or the delay to accomplish the overall aim of resuming offensive action…it should be treated as a routine tactic rather than a harbinger of disaster.”
Once a decision is made to withdraw by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, what are the planning considerations?
Considerations for the Withdrawal
First, deception operations are vital. Key aims will be to deceive the Russians about whether the Ukrainians actually will withdraw, and if so, what might be the timing of such an activity. Some deception might be achieved by stepped up patrols, increased fire support, decoys, as well as simulating normal activities and communications. The reality is however that it will be difficult to conceal from the Russians an intention to withdraw and it is likely any withdrawal, even at night, will be observed and placed under pressure by the Russians. That said, the Ukrainians will aim to deceive the Russians at every step of any withdrawal.
A second consideration is how to sequence the withdrawal. This includes when and how to evacuate logistic stocks, munitions, headquarters personnel and equipment (especially communications equipment and classified materials), reconnaissance elements, fire support and ground combat forces. For the Ukrainians, it is likely some of this has already been done. The Ukrainians will also have been evacuating civilians who wish to leave and canvassing this possibility with those who remain.
The withdrawal sequence will also depend on where and in what strength the enemy is pressing the force that is to withdraw. The Ukrainian forces will need enough combat power in Bakhmut in the final stages of their withdrawal to prevent a rout while not leaving too many units should the worst occur, and they lose the final units in the city.
A third consideration for the Ukrainians will be disrupting the Russians ability to interfere with the withdrawal. We should expect to see increased air defence, jamming of the electromagnetic spectrum and artillery used by the withdrawing Ukrainians, as well as greater air support. This aims to smooth the way for the withdrawing troops and permit them to disengage any follow up forces the Russians send in pursuit. The better the Ukrainians can do this, the fewer people they will lose in the withdrawal (should it be necessary).
This is called a ‘clean break’. It is a tactical disengagement of the Russians in a way that avoids their ability to follow up and pursue the withdrawing force. A lot of artillery, attacking concentrations of Russian reinforcements and fire support will be required. An important aspect of achieving a clean break is an effective rear guard.
A rear-guard force can help provide this clean break for the withdrawing force and prevent enemy pursuit. For the Ukrainians, the rear guard will most likely consist of armoured and mounted infantry forces as well as mechanised combat engineers. While the armour and infantry will fight their way rearward, combat engineers will be blowing pre-prepared demolitions on bridges, dropping trees, cratering roads and creating other obstacles to slow the Russians as well as channel them into Ukrainian killing grounds.
A final consideration for any withdrawal by the Ukrainian armed forces around Bakhmut will be command and control. This isn’t just about who the most senior commander is. It is about controlling an orderly withdrawal in the planned sequence. Military Police are vital for road space control, route discipline, and ensuring that units don’t ‘vacate’ defensive positions earlier than the plan stipulates (although there will be some flexibility given to the commander on the ground if their position becomes untenable).
Achieving good command and control in such a situation is also about good battle discipline. Tactical leaders at all levels must hold their positions until their assigned withdrawal time. This can be very difficult when there is a strong inclination to move rearwards earlier than the plan directs. But, experienced and professional soldiers, despite the terrible nature of such an operation, understand the imperatives of an orderly withdrawal
Ultimately, a successful withdrawal requires excellent planning and coordination. But this is underpinned by good leadership at all levels. And, the concept for how the withdrawal will be sequenced and executed must be unified and led by a senior commander. Such a senior commander must have excellent tactical acumen, good understanding of the terrain and a good appreciation of the capabilities of the withdrawing force. They must understand that getting it wrong can result in the loss of the entire withdrawing force.
What Next After Bakhmut?
If the Russians do eventually capture Bakhmut, it will certainly be lauded by the Russian government, and their state TV commentators, as victory over Ukraine. Putin is desperate for something that he can portray as a victory to his supporters, the Russian milblogger community and the Russian people.
The reality is that if the Russian do capture Bakhmut, they are seizing rubble. It is a town with minimal strategic importance, with almost no remaining infrastructure to support an occupying force. That the Russians have invested so much in its capture speaks volumes about their poor strategy in this war.
For the Ukrainians, they will be withdrawing into defensive zones in the Kramatorsk areas that they have had eight years to prepare. And the city sits on higher, more defensible ground than Bakhmut. Any advance on the Kramatorsk region is likely to be every bit as bloody for the Russians as its campaign for Bakhmut.
Given the other challenges the Russians are facing in battles around Siverskyi Donets, Kreminna, Kupiansk and Avdiivka, the 2023 Russian eastern offensive is already devolving into a disaggregated series of tactical actions without a unified approach beyond ‘capture the Donbas’. That is neither a strategy nor a plan. And it is another example of what Dr Rob Johnson has described as Russia’s dysfunctional warfare.
While Ukraine may lose a town in this battle, the Russians have lost much more over the course of the Battle of Bakhmut. They have wasted military units, soldiers and resources that would have been valuable to them once the Ukrainians launch their offensives later in the Spring.
The irony of this battle is that Russia has rushed into its 2023 offensives in the east despite Putin often talking about how patient Russia is and how it will outlast the West. This eastern campaign by the Russians, led by the recently appointed General Gerasimov, actually shows that Putin is impatient for success. And with western nations constantly surprising Russia with the level of their strategic patience and support for Ukraine, there is little at present to support Putin's view that time is on his side.
And the more battles like Bakhmut he fights, which fritter away Russian combat power, morale and strategic legitimacy, the less time he will have.
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