Russia Is Wasting Its Last Good Troops In A Pointless Attack On A Worthless Town

russia-is-wasting-its-last-good-troops-in-a-pointless-attack-on-a-worthless-town

Ukrainian troops.

Ukrainian defense ministry photo

Six weeks after the Ukrainian army launched twin counteroffensives in eastern and southern Ukraine, Russian forces across the country are regrouping, digging in, pulling back. Bracing for Ukrainian attacks and the coming winter.

There’s one exception. Around the town of Bakhmut, just north of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops, pro-Russian separatists and mercenaries from The Wagner Group are continuing a desperate, bloody operation they began way back in May. An attack that, despite Russian claims to the contrary, has failed to break Bakhmut’s Ukrainian garrison.

“The enemy is trying to hold the temporarily captured territories,” the Ukrainian general staff reported on Friday. “At the same time, it does not stop trying to conduct offensive actions in the Bakhmut and Avdiivka directions.” Avdiivka lies 25 miles south of Bakhmut.

It barely makes sense. Bakhmut has no strategic value. Western analysts observing the Russian operation around the town, and counting Russia’s mounting losses, have concluded that the Bakhmut op … isn’t really about Bakhmut. It’s about creating a narrative.

“Russian forces are likely continuing to falsify claims of advances in the Bakhmut area to portray themselves as making gains in at least one sector amid continuing losses in northeast and southern Ukraine,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. concluded last month.

The Bakhmut operation is a lie. And it’s a lie that contains more lies. The overall narrative the Kremlin hopes to create is that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, its forces still can win in Ukraine. And the forces contributing to the Bakhmut attack—in particular, the separatists and Wagner—all are trying to take credit for the fictional wins.

Wagner, a for-profit company that has sent thousands of its fighters to Ukraine, clearly hopes to grab a bigger share of the Russian war industry while Russia’s conventional forces are weak from eight months of costly warfare. The company’s financier Yevgeny Prigozhin “is jockeying for more prominence,” ISW posited.

The separatists’ motivation is less tangible. ISW cited Bakhmut’s “emotional significance to pro-war residents of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” but noted the town’s “little other importance.”

The Russians first attacked Bakhmut in May during a broader Russian push into eastern Ukraine—a push that culminated in Russian troops capturing the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in July. The attacks on Severodonetsk and Lysychansk were so costly for Russian forces that they had little choice but to pause.

The Ukrainians took advantage of the pause. They escalated their attacks on Russian supply lines then, in late August and early September, counterattacked.

The eastern counteroffensive quickly liberated a thousand square miles of Kharkiv Oblast, north of Bakhmut. The southern counteroffensive has pushed Russian forces toward the Dnipro River and set the conditions for the Ukrainians possibly to liberate occupied Kherson.

While their comrades retreated or dug in, the Russian and allied troops around Bakhmut kept trying to advance. It didn’t go well. Even as artillery dropped the bridge across the Bakhmutovka River and transformed the landscape into moonscape, Ukrainian troops from the 58th Motorized Brigade held on.

Last week, the Russians claimed they’d captured several settlements around Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials rejected the claim. “Ukrainian forces have held their lines against Russian attacks,” ISW noted.

What’s especially remarkable is that, even if the Russians were telling the truth—even if they were winning the battle for Bakhmut—it wouldn’t really matter except as propaganda. Having lost 100,000 men killed and wounded since late February, the Russian army is fraying. The separatist armies from the Donetsk and Luhansk “republics,” which fight under Russian command, might be in even worse shape.

It’s unclear how many Wagner men have died or been wounded in Ukraine. As early as April, one analyst estimated 3,000 mercenaries had died. Whatever the current figure might be, it’s telling that Wagner this summer began recruiting convicts as a manpower expedient.

Right now Russian forces—regulars, separatists and mercs—possess very little offensive combat power. That they’re all willing to spend it on an operation that has more symbolic value than actual military value says something profound about Russia’s prospects as the wider war’s first full winter sets in.

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