January 26, 2023 - 10:13am

The battle for Bakhmut has been long and arduous, with both sides suffering a heavy human toll. Throughout this period Russian forces, spearheaded by the Wagner organisation, have made incremental gains, but since the fall of Soledar they have been moving much faster. Now Ukraine’s position in and around the city is rapidly deteriorating, as Russia seeks to encircle the strategically important town. The Americans are now believed to be advising Kyiv to withdraw from the city to preserve soldiers and equipment.

These recommendations are based on a stream of bleak reports coming out of the city: for instance, last week Germany’s foreign intelligence service (BND) told Der Spiegel that Ukraine is losing hundreds of soldiers per day.

Given that thousands of fighters are being trained in Europe, the rationale is for Kyiv to protect what’s left of its forces in Ukraine at a safe distance from Russian positions. In turn, they can develop an armoured core and prepare for an offensive to try and punch through Russian defences, as they’ve done previously in Kharkiv.

Reuters describes how one official said the “belief in Washington is that Ukraine has spent considerable resources defending the city of Bakhmut but that there is a high possibility that the Russians will eventually push the Ukrainians out of that town.” Moreover, a senior official in US President Joe Biden’s administration claimed Kyiv’s disproportionate focus on the city is hindering its efforts elsewhere.

The Institute for the Study of War provided an alternate perspective, describing Kyiv’s Bakhmut approach as “a strategically sound effort despite its costs” since Ukraine would pay “a significant price for giving it up”. The next day, the ISW asserted that the high casualty rate associated with defending the city comes with “opportunity costs related to potential Ukrainian counter-offensive operations elsewhere”. Similarly, the Washington Post recently argued that “Kyiv must balance its defence of the city, weighted with symbolism, with preparations for a counteroffensive”.

To improve Ukraine’s prospects, the West is sending enormous amounts of weapons, armour and tanks to Ukraine. This is in part spurred by the war’s shift back in Russia’s favour, which has stabilised its lines, hardened its defences by building massive trench/barrier networks, and regained forward momentum in several areas along the frontline.

To give some examples, Russia has recently initiated offensive efforts in the southern Zaporizhzhia region, moved on to Vuhledar, partially surrounded Avdiivka, taken Klishchiivka, captured a number of towns around Bakhmut, and looks to take Siversk further north. Yet Ukraine has reportedly also been pressing forth in some spots such as the Kreminna area, where its military has been active for weeks and Russia has launched new counter-attacks.

After scoring notable victories in Kharkiv and Kherson, Ukraine is once again on the back foot, and it is widely anticipated — though not certain — that Russia will conduct sizeable offensives in the coming weeks and months. To prevent the encirclement of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, to better defend against the developing onslaught and try and improve its ability to launch its own meaningful forward action to take back territory, Kyiv may have to finally cut the cord on Bakhmut.

Lucas Webber is the co-founder and editor of Militant Wire