The Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut is likely a strategically sound effort despite its costs for Ukraine, the Institute for Study of War writes in its latest report, contradicting advice from an unnamed senior US official to instead focus on a counteroffensive in the south.
Moreover, Ukraine is effectively pinning down Russian forces in Bakhmut, preventing them from advancing in other directions, but cannot take advantage of this. Part of the reason is the West slow-rolling or withholding weapons systems and supplies essential for large-scale counteroffensive operations, ISW asserts.
Despite the significant costs of defending Bakhmut to the detriment of of potential Ukrainian counter-offensive operations elsewhere, Ukraine would also have paid a significant price for allowing Russian troops to take Bakhmut easily, ISW writes.
“Bakhmut itself is not operationally or strategically significant but had Russian troops taken it relatively rapidly and cheaply they could have hoped to expand operations in ways that could have forced Ukraine to construct hasty defensive positions in less favorable terrain,” ISW writes.
As well, there are political considerations to take into account: Russian forces already occupy over 100,000 sq km of land and inflict atrocities on those areas:
“Americans have not had to make such choices since 1865 and should not be quick to scorn considerations that would be very real to them were American cities facing such threats,” ISW wrote.
Earlier, Ukraine used similar attrition tactics, over months grinding down Russian troops in pursuit of marginal tactical gains in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. After capturing them following an organized Ukrainian retreat from Lysychansk, the Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast culminated and stagnated in the summer and fall of 2022.
“Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut will likely contribute to a similar result—Russian forces have been funneling manpower and equipment into the area since May 2022 and have yet to achieve any operationally significant advances that seriously threaten the Ukrainian defense of the area…. Ukrainian forces are effectively pinning Russian troops, equipment, and overall operational focus on Bakhmut, thus inhibiting Russia’s ability to pursue offensives elsewhere in the theater,” ISW assessed.