Ukrainian top brass stirs the pot with talk of Bakhmut counterattack
Spring has arrived in Ukraine – with late March temperatures an unreasonably high 17C along much of the frontline in the east. It means it is possible to declare, definitively, that the Russian campaign to knock out Ukraine’s power grid has failed, and whatever happens next in the war, its people will not be frozen out of their homes, as was once feared when the cynical bombing campaign began on 10 October.
The reality, of course, was the missile strikes on key infrastructure had been largely abandoned at the end of January, with Russian missile stocks at 10-15% of prewar levels, according to Ukrainian estimates. Moscow’s tactics are changing: Vadym Skibitsky, deputy head of Kyiv’s military intelligence, said in a TV interview that it appeared military fuel and “logistics systems” were now being targeted.
There has been no shortage of bombing and fighting during the long winter, but in another sense little has happened. The battle for the small Donbas city of Bakhmut rages, as it has since May, but in recent weeks Ukraine’s forces have been pushed back north and south of the city, leaving the urban centre increasingly isolated, its supply roads dangerously exposed. Drone footage depicts a battered urban landscape, although many buildings are still standing and troops are able to shelter in basements.
As the weather turns, so too does talk of a Ukrainian counterattack. Kyiv’s forces are gradually taking delivery of previously promised western tanks, fighting vehicles and other munitions, and some of them have been freshly trained in Britain, Germany or Poland. But the country’s second most important commander, Col Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi, surprised most observers when he suggested, on Thursday, that the place for a counterstrike could be in or around Bakhmut itself.
The attackers, predicted the commander of the country’s land forces, would “lose strength and exhale” and so “very soon we will take advantage of this opportunity”. While a counterattack is anticipated, Bakhmut is not the logical place for it: the city has only modest military value. The principal advantage for Ukraine to defend it is in the belief that doing so will finally bring to an halt the Russian offensive and hand Kyiv back the initiative.
Russian casualties in pursuit of the city amount to 20,000 to 30,000 according to western estimates. While it has been argued that Ukraine has been taking fewer casualties, it is frequently observed that Kyiv is losing some of its best soldiers against former prisoners signed up to fight for the Wagner paramilitary group. A greater risk still is that Russia surrounds Bakhmut, leaving multiple brigades (Syrskyi cited four) besieged in the city, which could force Ukraine to use its western tanks to rescue them.
As for Syrski’s remarks, a more likely interpretation is that the general is engaged in some simple misdirection – a version of maskirovka – a Russian military concept that encompasses western notions of operational secrecy with simple deception. Russia’s military bloggers, most likely to be proxies for its key commanders, are increasingly preoccupied with the potential locations for a Ukrainian spring counteroffensive. Even talking about it in the context of Bakhmut keeps the idea in play.
What are most likely to be Ukrainian probing attacks on the southern Zaporizhzhia front are now getting highlighted by Russian observers, including one at Novodanylivka earlier this week. Trying to cut off the land bridge to Crimea remains Ukraine’s most obvious strategic move, which would be most simply achieved by attacking south on the Zaporizhzhia front – although the obvious counterpoint is that the Russians know the geography too.
A 23-minute video interview with the Wagner group boss, Yevgeny Prigozhin, released on Thursday is long on talking up a Ukrainian counterattack, although it appears full of exaggerations and misunderstandings. He suggests Ukraine has a reserve of 200,000, with 80,000 near Bakhmut – numbers Ukraine would be thrilled to have – and that Kyiv could sustain a multi-pronged offensive, even into Russia near Belgorod, which would be an attack that Ukraine’s western backers would almost certainly not support.
The reality is that, as the year-long war has demonstrated, successful attacks are difficult. The protracted defence of Bakhmut shows how hard it is to capture even a small city, while Russia has had ample time to build up its fortifications. For Ukraine to succeed it will want to combine surprise, as it did with the September Kharkiv counteroffensive, with overwhelming force. Ukraine’s commanders may feel they have that already, but it may also be prudent to build up further and wait.