The end of Bakhmut

The end of Bakhmut

Ukraine is close to retreating from Bakhmut. This could happen anytime now, but it has to happen fast enough before exit routes are closed down. Predictions of a timetable vary, but the Ukrainians should evacuate Bakhmut no later than the weekend, provided they can.

There are still a couple of roads open to exit the city, secured in part by Ukrainian army attacks on the flanks of the city. But these roadways and fields will not stay available if the Wagner forces pour in fast.  

Monday night the Wagner forces stormed and took the two most fortified and defensible parts of the Citadel area of the city – pushing the Ukrainians back into the last part of the Citadel, which is mainly low-rise buildings. These will be hard to hold.

There is also fighting around a portion of the city’s northwestern sector where the Ukrainians are holding out at the Children’s Hospital (long since evacuated of patients). The purpose of the Ukrainian force is to hold this area to keep the road open out of the city in that direction and to divert Wagner forces from taking over the entire Citadel too quickly.

The Ukrainians could negotiate a safe withdrawal with the Russians, but it is unlikely that President Volodmyr Zelensky will allow that to happen. Furthermore, the so-called leaks about Wagner force boss Yevgeny Prigozhin’s communications with Ukrainian intelligence – although he has denied them heatedly – make it almost impossible for the Wagners to make any deals with their Ukrainian enemies.

Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin rolls out his Wagner recruiting pitch to convicted criminals. Image: screengrab / YouTube

The battle for Bakhmut is Zelensky’s battle, because he demanded that his army stay there and fight even after his commanders told him it was too costly and not worth taking needless losses. The battle has raged for eight or nine months and, to a degree, has caused big losses on both sides. Recently his top commanders have put out statements that the fight was worth it. It is likely Zelensky demanded these statements of support.

The big question is: What is next?  The Russians could use their forces to move toward Chasiv Yar and push the Ukrainian army back toward the Dnieper river.  The Dnieper is absolutely strategic for Ukraine. If the Russians can reach its banks, Ukraine will be cut in half.

The Ukrainians have to be careful in mounting their planned but not yet executed great offensive because, if they leave their back door open, the Russians have sufficient forces to handle an offensive and to move on toward Chasiv Yar and beyond.  There is a danger the Ukrainian army could be trapped from the north and the south and be unable to gain a breakthrough that could justify trying an offensive aimed at the Kherson region or the Zaporizhzhia region or even Crimea.

The US and NATO response is to stuff Ukraine with tons of modern weapons, some of which the Russians are blowing up before they ever get near a battlefield. But manpower remains Ukraine’s Achilles heel. It is becoming more and more difficult for Ukraine to recruit soldiers or dragoon young men into service. This will only multiply when the full impact of the Bakhmut defeat is known to the Ukrainian public.

Commander in Chief Valery Zaluzhny (right) with Colonel General Aleksandr Syrskyi. Photo: Ukraine Armed Forces

The Ukrainian army leadership also is in doubt. Its top leader, General Valery Zaluzhny, seemingly has disappeared. And so, too, has General Aleksandr Syrskyi, commander of the Ukrainian ground forces. There are no answers but plenty of rumors.

One rumor is that Zelensky went on his European tour while the military opposition was eliminated. Another is that these two generals were involved in corruption and were caught. A third rumor is that both were killed in a missile strike.

If the planned offensive is delayed because the army’s leaders have been killed, for whatever reason, then Zelensky will face overwhelming problems.

A key problem understanding the war in Ukraine is the reliability of sources of information, a problem that relates to the fact that both sides specialize in disinformation and fake news. That said, the information coming from Bakhmut so far is confirmed. The rumors about the fate of Ukraine’s generals are not confirmed.

Stephen Bryen is a senior fellow at the Center for Security Policy and the Yorktown Institute. This article was originally published on his Substack, Weapons and Strategy. Asia Times is republishing it with permission.