Russia Pushes Toward a Symbolic Victory

But Ukraine refuses to abandon Bakhmut, even amid talk of a favorable counteroffensive
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 7, 2023 10:20 AM CST
Desperate for a Win, Russia Fights for a Pile of 'Rubble'
A Ukrainian tank drives towards a frontline near Bakhmut, Ukraine, Monday, March 6, 2023.   (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

The eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is bordered on three sides by Russian troops. Still, Ukraine isn't willing to give it up. President Volodymyr Zelensky has ordered the commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces "to find the appropriate forces to help the guys in Bakhmut" after his top generals "unanimously" advised "do not withdraw but reinforce," per the Financial Times. Western officials aren't sure that's the best move, especially as the surrender of surrounded Ukrainian soldiers could mark a huge blow to morale. More:

  • Heavy toll: The eight-month battle for the city has resulted in "staggering casualties on both sides," per the Washington Post. It's also "depleted both sides' artillery reserves," per Reuters. Some Western officials have suggested Kyiv should preserve its forces by pulling out until it can launch a counteroffensive with new weaponry to arrive this spring.
  • In favor of retreat: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Monday that a retreat "won't necessarily mean that the Russians have changed the tide of this fight," per Reuters. "It should be treated as a routine tactic rather than a harbinger of disaster," Mick Ryan, a former Australian general and author of the "WarInTheFuture" newsletter, tells CNN. Some Ukrainian fighters are also of this view, per FT.
  • Symbolic victory: Yet seizing Bakhmut, one of the last major cities in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region to remain in Ukrainian hands, would surely boost Russian morale. It would be Russian President Vladimir Putin's "first major battlefield victory since his forces captured the nearby sister cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk early last summer," per FT.

  • At what cost? Russia's campaign on Bakhmut, a small city abandoned by more than 90% of its 70,000 prewar residents, "illustrates the desperate need for a 'win'—any win—regardless of the broader battlefield," CNN reports. Ryan describes Bakhmut as "a town with minimal strategic importance, with almost no remaining infrastructure to support an occupying force." Or, more simply, "rubble."
  • Holding on: Ukrainian officials say Russian attacks from the east, north, and south have intensified in recent days, per Reuters. But in addition to low ammunition, Russia also suffers as a result of "ad hoc groupings of scattered unit remnants" and "severe battlefield leadership attrition," according to the Modern War Institute at West Point, per CNN.
  • Counteroffensive: Ultimately, "the likely imminent culmination of the Russian offensive around Bakhmut before or after its fall, the already culminated Russian offensive around Vuhledar, and the stalling Russian offensive in Luhansk Oblast are likely setting robust conditions for a future Ukrainian counteroffensive," according to researchers from the Institute for War Studies, per Reuters.
(More Russia-Ukraine war stories.)

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