Explained: Significance Of Russian Victory At The Battle Of Bakhmut

Explained: Significance Of Russian Victory At The Battle Of Bakhmut

by Venu Gopal Narayanan - Tuesday, May 23, 2023 03:53 PM IST
Explained: Significance Of Russian Victory At The Battle Of BakhmutUkrainian soldier in the frontline of Bakhmut
  • While the fall of Bakhmut, by itself, may not determine the outcome of the war, it is an important victory for many reasons, and offers a number of lessons to India.

Most wars are characterised by a surfeit of information. The war in Ukraine is different because of the opposite — a glaring lack of credible, verified information.

As a result, it has taken all of this month for Russia, Ukraine, and the world, to finally acknowledge what was evident to anyone following this conflict — that the town of Bakhmut (called Artemovsk by the Russians) in eastern Ukraine had finally fallen to the Russians after a ten-month-long battle.

Much of the battle was characterized by intense, urban, positional warfare, in which the Russians clawed their way forward from trench to trench, and building to building.

While exact figures of casualties are not available, both Russia and Ukraine concede that the numbers run into the thousands.

Map of Ukraine (Note: Green lines mark approximate frontline)
Map of Ukraine (Note: Green lines mark approximate frontline)

Video footage of graveyards and combat operations, geolocated by multiple Telegram channels, qualitatively indicate that the Ukrainian forces suffered far worse than the Russians by orders of magnitude. But this is flatly denied by Kiev.

Whatever the numbers, Bakhmut is the biggest and bloodiest battle of the 21st century, and has earned an unsavoury sobriquet — ‘the meat-grinder’ — in reference to the many Ukrainian troops killed.

Kiev doggedly shovelled numerous military formations into the sector, armed with top-notch weapon systems supplied by the West, and continued to do so right up to the very end.

As per most estimates, the Ukrainian forces involved in the battle of Bakhmut totalled the equivalent of 3-4 Indian divisions, which is roughly equal to a Corps. That is a third of the entire Ukrainian Army.

By the end, most of these formations were either destroyed, or rendered incapable of conducting military operations.

One calculation based on shoulder patches and vehicle markings indicates that over a dozen Ukrainian mechanized infantry brigades participated in the battle at one time or the other.

In contrast, the Russian attacks were conducted mainly by a mercenary outfit called the Wagner Group, supported by regular Russian artillery, armour, and air strikes.

While the fall of Bakhmut, by itself, may not determine the outcome of the war, it is an important victory for many reasons, and offers a number of lessons to India.

One, this was the first conventional battle between peer groups using modern weapon systems and platforms in a network-centric fashion.

The comprehensive defeat of the Ukrainian Army, which was armed with the best that the West has to offer, and strongly supported by Western intelligence agencies (including their considerable satellite and electronic assets), shows that advanced technologies are insufficient to win a battle when the other side is equally well-equipped.

Two, the massive, continuous artillery barrages which the Russians conducted with devastating effect, interspersed with thermobaric weapons which can destroy entire units in a flash, shows that numbers matter.

This is both in terms of artillery pieces and rounds fired. The Ukrainians were unable to match the Russians’ rates of fire to even a moderate degree, and were thus badly out-gunned.

Three, Russia’s use of mercenaries as their spearhead was a novel move, since it protected their regular army, minimized casualties to it, and allowed them to keep large forces in reserve.

Four, the Russians have shown that the successful prosecution of infantry operations in an urban environment for long periods in a sustained manner, while being tactically questionable, is possible without a breakdown in discipline or morale, as long as the troops are supplied efficiently, units are rotated out periodically, and they are well led.

Five, the futility of continued Western support for their proxy war in Ukraine has been shown up for what it was from the start – a horrendous mistake.

There was no way the Ukrainians could have won at Bakhmut, just as there is no way they can win this war. Worse, they can’t even recover what they’ve lost, not even in a month of Sundays.

And yet, the war-rhetoric emanating from Kiev, and echoed in Western capitals, is that the Ukrainian military (basically what’s left of their Army, since they have no Air Force or Navy) will soon recover the four Russian-majority provinces in the Donbass region, and Crimea as well.

This is a dangerously delusional posture which, if not toned down or stopped, will lead to only one outcome — the further, needless deaths of more young Ukrainians.

Worse, and perhaps more importantly, the Russians now have first-hand knowledge of how advanced Western weapons work in war. This information is worth its weight in gold.

Six, it is now clear from the Ukrainian perspective, that holding on to Bakhmut was more symbolic in nature, than strategic.

They seem to have treated Bakhmut in true Stalingrad-ian terms: a grand and glorious siege which breaks the back of the enemy, lifts the spirit of the nation, and propels her forces to victory.

On the other hand, this inexplicable Ukrainian decision to wrap Bakhmut in symbolism and funnel so many formations into the sector, has been strategically very useful for the Russians. It prevented the Ukrainians from deploying these troops in other sectors, along a contested frontline which runs for a thousand kilometres, and gifted Russia an excellent opportunity to destroy a third of the opposing forces, one formation at a time.

Seven, with Bakhmut in the bag, the Russians can now plan the next phase of the war with considerably less pressure, and far more options, not least because the town is a transportation hub.

As a map of the Bakhmut sector below shows, they could attack the cities of Slovyansk or Kramatorsk (underlined in red), to liberate more territory in Donetsk province. Or, they could open up a new sector further to the south. Or, both.

Map of Bakhmut with assault options available to Russians to Slovansk and Kramatorsk
Map of Bakhmut with assault options available to Russians to Slovansk and Kramatorsk

Either way, the Battle of Bakhmut has broken the back of the Ukrainian forces. They will take time to regroup.

But, considering the recent barrage of Russian missiles which have both depleted Ukrainian air defence capabilities, and destroyed ammunition stores, it is doubtful if Kiev will be able to swiftly organise another Custer-ian last stand at another town. If they try, it will probably be the battle which breaks them.

The Indian government would do well to keep these points in mind, the next time it sends prospective vendors of howitzers for another endless round of trials, instead of just ordering the field guns.

If we cannot learn from what happened in Bahkmut, then we will be setting ourselves up for a few unpleasant surprises.

Venu Gopal Narayanan is an independent upstream petroleum consultant who focuses on energy, geopolitics, current affairs and electoral arithmetic. He tweets at @ideorogue.
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