War in Ukraine: why Zelensky wants to keep Bakhmut to the end

After several months of fierce fighting, the battle for Bakhmut continues to rage. By rejecting the scenario of a tactical withdrawal in the face of a Russian offensive, Volodymyr Zelensky earlier this week reaffirmed his desire to hold this city in eastern Ukraine, which has become the epicenter of hostilities, to the end. “I ordered the General Staff to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut,” he said on Monday evening, adding that “no part of Ukraine can be left unattended.” For almost eight months Ukrainians and Russians have been fighting there in the hell of dirt, concrete, and scrap metal.

“Initially, this city did not have much strategic importance, but in the end it acquired a strong symbolic weight,” emphasizes General Jerome Pellistrandi, editor-in-chief of the Revue Défense nationale. Therefore, it would be politically difficult to abandon it.”

On the ground, the position of Ukrainian forces seems increasingly precarious. The Russian paramilitary group Wagner said on Wednesday, March 8, that it had captured the “eastern part of Bakhmut”, claiming to hold “everything east of the Bakhmutka River” that crosses the city. In recent weeks, Russian troops have also seized territories to the north and south of the city, limiting supply lines for Ukrainian troops to a few roads leading west.

Bakhmut “is now a Ukrainian-held salient that is vulnerable to Russian attack from three sides,” according to a March 4 British Defense Ministry report, pointing to “increasing pressure” on Ukrainian forces.

Progress paid at a high price

“The main risk for the forces remaining in Bakhmut is encirclement,” said Gen. Olivier de Bavincheve, former chief of staff of the International Force in Afghanistan (ISAF). cities as much as possible and inflict as many losses on them as possible, and not stop and recover at a new line of defense a few kilometers away. And for good reason: for months, Russian forces have paid a heavy price for every offensive in the area.

Ukrainian serviceman at the position in Bakhmut, March 3, 2022

© / Stepanov

According to Washington, the Wagner private militia, which concentrates its main efforts there, has recorded more than 30,000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured), including 9,000 killed since the beginning of the conflict. Moreover, half of these deaths occur in mid-December. “The Battle of Bakhmut could seriously undermine the best forces of the Wagner group, depriving Russia of some of its most effective and hard-to-replace strike forces,” says a recent report from the Institute for the Study of War. An “attractive” prospect in a context where defensive urban fighting is “greatly in favor of Ukraine,” this Washington-based think tank emphasizes.

urban fight

According to a NATO official quoted by CNN, Russian forces would thus lose at least five soldiers for every Ukrainian killed defending Bakhmut. According to Oleksiy Danilov, Secretary of the Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, the ratio could even increase to one in seven. “The losses of the attacker are always higher than those of the defender,” summarizes General de Bavinhove. “Especially in urban areas where the Ukrainians can take cover behind all the fortifications erected to make it as difficult as possible for the Russian advance.”

Will the Ukrainians be able to hold out over time? “We cannot rule out that Bahmut will fall in the coming days,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned on March 8 on the sidelines of a meeting of European defense ministers in Stockholm. “This does not necessarily reflect any turning point in the war,” he said, however.

“For the Ukrainians, the challenge is to be able to keep the loss ratio in their favor,” said General Dominique Trinquan, a military expert and former head of the French mission to the UN. And, ultimately, reduce the ability of Russian troops to continue the offensive upstream. Moreover, this city is not the only obstacle in the region. “Ukrainians have already built a significant defense behind Bakhmut,” General Trinkvan sums up. “After this, there will be no boulevard city.”

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