Numerous reports suggest Russian forces may soon gain control of the city of Bakhmut.Retired military officials said Russian President Vladimir Putin’s success in the city is likely due to the amount of resources he’s put into the fight.Ukraine’s military could pull out soon to preserve itself for a large counteroffensive. Despite reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces could soon capture Bakhmut, his military has likely failed to improve on its overall strategy.
That estimation comes from three retired top-ranking military officials who described to Newsweek how Putin has decided to expend a considerable amount of resources on Bakhmut, perhaps to the detriment of his long-term goals in Ukraine.
Bakhmut has been the site of intense fighting between Russia and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s forces for months. At the forefront of Russia’s assault on Bakhmut has been the Wagner Group of mercenaries, and its leader—Yevgeny Prigozhin—claimed on Wednesday that his soldiers have expanded its encirclement of the city.
While the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank wrote on March 5 that Ukraine was “likely conducting a limited tactical withdrawal in Bakhmut,” Zelensky on Tuesday reiterated that Bakmhut is still a “main focus” for his forces.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen Wednesday at his annual meeting with prosecutors in Moscow. The inset shows Ukrainian servicemen on a BMP-2 tank drive toward the city of Bakhmut on Saturday. Retired military officials discussed with Newsweek what Putin’s reported success in Bakhmut means in terms of his military strategy.
Photos by ARIS MESSINIS/AFP/Getty Images
But does Russia’s advantage in Bakhmut show that Putin has adopted an improved strategy following multiple battlefield losses over the past year?
“It’s definitely not a new strategy. Since the war began, the Russians have taken significant casualties and lost battles using all types of their conventional warfare organizations,” General Jack Keane, retired four-star general who served as vice chief of staff and acting chief of staff of the U.S. Army, told Newsweek.
“What’s happened in Bakhmut is they started initially with the Wagner organization using largely penal system prisoners to conduct attacks, and they were using ‘human wave’ attacks,” Keane said.
He added that the “human wave” tactic allowed Russian forces to make “some progress” in Bakhmut, but it has also resulted in “extraordinary casualties.”
Retired Lieutenant General Stephen Twitty, who is also a former deputy commander of U.S. European Command, told Newsweek that Putin’s success in Bakhmut is more of a sign that he’s “dumping a ton of resources into this particular city” rather than his military getting better.
Twitty also described the “human wave” attacks used by Wagner. The tactic finds the mercenaries—usually former prisoners—being forced first into combat situations to kill as many as Ukrainians as they can and to help locate Ukrainians. Then the professional forces can come in to conduct “precision infantry maneuvers.”
“It’s a shame to see the wave of convicts and conscripts that have been put in the battle—poorly trained, poorly equipped, and acted as human waves—in order to accomplish this objective,” Twitty said.
Kevin Ryan, a retired brigadier general and current senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center, told Newsweek that while Putin’s military has learned some lessons since the Russian leader began his invasion more than a year ago, it’s “having spotty success in implementing those lessons.”
Ryan said the Russian military “spends a lot time and resources studying war and military science” at places such as the Russian Academy of Military Sciences and the Russian National Defense Management Center.
“So, the Russian military leadership devote a great deal of effort to trying to learn lessons from successes and failures,” he said.
“The Russian military has corrected some mistakes already,” Ryan added. “For example, they initially tried a rapid assault across a wide series of fronts, but have now concentrated their efforts on narrow sectors with methodical clearing of villages and towns.”
Even with some corrections, Ryan said, Putin’s military leadership has been “unable to make the necessary changes to fix other problems. Corruption, poor training at the company level, the lack of a professional sergeants’ corps, and other problems remain unsolved, and will likely not be solved in the near future.”
Reports have indicated that despite the media coverage given to Bakhmut, the city doesn’t offer a great tactical advantage for either Ukraine or Russia. Other cities in Ukraine are said to offer more strategic value, but Bakhmut has taken on a larger political significance.
As the battle there continued grinding on over the months, “Bakhmut holds” became a rallying cry for Ukrainians. When Zelensky visited Washington, D.C., in December, he presented Congress with a flag from the city and told lawmakers that “the fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom.”
“It’s all about the symbolic,” Twitty said. “No one wants to lose this thing, because they lost a lot of lives. They’ve been at it for eight months. Now they’re wed to it.”
But a victory in Bakhmut would have little real reward, according to Twitty.
“There’s nothing but rubble there now. What they’re really fighting for now is ground, because it’s not a city anymore,” he said.
“Russians have been looking for a win for months …They focused on Bakhmut because they believe it’s something they could take, and they blew up the significance of it for domestic consumption, believing that the Wagner Group would be very successful there. But they haven’t been. They got bogged down and tied down,” Keane said.
He continued, “The Russians brought in airborne forces to take it. It’s a mantra for them. They need to take the city. They’ve committed to it, and they want to propagate that kind of success for their domestic audience.”
Keane also said the narrative of Ukraine “losing” Bakhmut isn’t entirely correct.
“There’s a preoccupation with Ukraine losing Bakhmut. While they haven’t lost it yet, at some point, I think they likely will pull out of there. But they’re going to stay with it as long as they can, and if the Russians want to commit more forces to it, that’s fine with them,” he said.
“What they have committed to right from the outset is that they’re looking at a counteroffensive around the May/June timeframe,” Keane said. “They’re seeing the opportunity here to destroy as much of Russian ground conventional forces as they can in terms of setting conditions for their own counter-offensive … Destroy these forces now so we don’t have to fight them later.”
Keane explained if the Ukrainian military in Bakhmut starts to feel truly trapped, then it’ll conduct a tactical withdrawal to preserve its forces. In such a scenario, forces would be leaving with having sustained less losses than Russia.
“They have taken casualties, but nothing on the scale that Russian forces have,” Keane said.
Along with reports of Ukraine mounting a counteroffensive in the coming months, Russia was also said to be preparing for another major offensive in the spring. However, recent reports indicate Putin’s military may be too depleted of personnel and weapons to conduct such an operation.