Editor’s note: Jeffrey Owens is a Jeffersonville native, a 1995 graduate of Miami Trace High School and 2000 graduate of Ohio University. As a lifelong history buff, Owens published “Victory In Europe; A People’s History of the Second World War”, a more than 700-page analysis of World War II in Europe in 2015. Since 2015, Owens has hosted more than a dozen educational symposiums on a variety of military history topics at the Grove City Library. He is a resident of New Holland.
Bakhmut. A small and relatively obscure Ukrainian city in Donetsk Oblast with a pre-war population of 70,000 and a legacy of salt mining, is among the unlikeliest of scenes for a war’s longest and bloodiest battle. Nearly one year into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however Bakhmut is exactly that, as the direction of war hinges on it. Russia has concentrated its forces there in a bid to overrun the remainder of Donetsk Oblast, while its defense has come to symbolize Ukrainian resistance.
Bisected by the Bakmutka River and located 90 kilometers north of Russian occupied Donetsk City, Bakhmut likely never appeared on Russian operational maps until the spring of 2022. After Russian forces retreated from the entire Kyiv Front in northern Ukraine by the end of March, a concentrated Russian offensive was launched on April 18 for the purpose of overrunning the entirety of Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, collectively known as the Donbas.
At the onset of this renewed Russian offensive, roughly 85% of Luhansk Oblast and 45% of Donetsk Oblast were under Russian occupation. Although the battlefield was significantly condensed by April, Russian tactics in the Donbas were completely incompatible with any semblance of maneuver warfare necessary for large scale conquest. Massed artillery fire to the tune of 1.5 million shells per month were launched across the front. Wiping out everything in their path followed by occupying the rubble became the established and practiced Russian art of war.
Overrunning the remaining 15% of Luhansk Oblast was the first priority of the renewed offensive. Piecemeal Russian units redeployed from all across the Kyiv front were thrown against the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) who created “fortress cities” out of each town the Russians assaulted. Mastering the art of the tactical withdrawal, the AFU inflicted maximum casualties upon the Russians until the sustainment of the fortress city became completely untenable. Then they simply withdrew to the next town.
One of these fortress cities was Popasna, which as of April 18 was among the last remaining towns in the roughly 15% of Ukrainian held territory in Luhansk Oblast. Tragically, this settlement with a pre-war population of 20,000 is now an utterly ruined city with its entire civilian infrastructure from electricity, heat, water and sewage completely destroyed. On May 7 Russian mercenaries of Wagner Private Military Company, after a months-long siege broke through the Ukrainian defenses of Popasna. From there they sought to advance on Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, which lay just 32 kilometers to the west.
Simultaneously, the Russian Armed Forces (RuAF) fifty kilometers north of Popasna were laying siege to Sevordonetsk and Lysychansk, two sister-cities which lay on opposite sides of the Seversky Donets River and constituted the final remaining Ukrainian defenses in Luhansk Oblast. The lifeline or Ground Line of Communication (GLOC) for the defense of Severodonetsk was the T0504 highway which ran 64 kilometers southwest to Bakhmut. If Russian Wagner mercenaries advancing from Popasna could overrun Bakhmut and cut the T0504 GLOC, the Ukrainian defense of Severodonetsk would be in immediate peril.
Bakhmut however held while the AFU inflicted a Pyrrhic victory on the Russian forces at Severodonetsk and Lysychansk. A Pyrrhic victory is a “success” which inflicts such ruinous losses on the victor, that the resulting tactical win is in reality a strategic defeat. Russia’s brutal months-long siege and eventual capture of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which spanned late April to early July, was so costly in both ammunition and manpower that it culminated the entire Russian offensive in the Donbas. From early July through the end of 2022, the RuAF not only went without a single significant victory, but also lost considerable ground to Ukrainian counter offensives in Kharkiv and western Kherson Oblasts in September and October respectively.
Since May, the 32-kilometer approach from Popasna to Bakhmut has become the bloodiest and most contested ground in Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February. The Russian offensive has been pressed almost exclusively by the Wagner mercenary group, financed and operated by Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin. For years Wagner promoted itself as a self-funded organization without direct ties to the Kremlin. Since February 2022, however Prigozhin has transformed himself into a business tycoon with political aspirations and has opened a magnificent office building for Wagner in downtown St Petersburg.
High losses among his mercenaries on the approaches to Bakhmut forced Prigozhin in the summer of 2022 to take the unprecedented step of recruiting directly out of Russian prisons to replenish his ranks. Amnesty from their prison sentences were promised to those who enlisted and survived six months of combat, and by the end of the year approximately 50,000 convicts were serving on the front lines of Bakhmut.
Surrender however was strictly forbidden and punishable by death for these Wagner convicts. This was publicly demonstrated in November when one of the Wagner prisoners, Yevgeny Nuzhin, was returned to Russia by Ukraine in a prisoner-of-war exchange. Days later the video execution of Nuzhin surfaced online in which he was tied to a concrete slab while the executioner crushed his skull with a sledgehammer.
Russia’s withdrawal from western Kherson Oblast in early November under pressure from a multi-directional Ukrainian offensive was determined by Ukrainian Intelligence to be the result of an internal agreement between Putin and then overall commander of Russian Forces in Ukraine, Army General Sergei Surovikin. Since the Russian offensive had been stalled across the Donbas ever since their Pyrrhic victory in early July, this Putin/Surovikin arrangement was designed to consolidate Russian forces east of the Dnieper River to reprioritize the conquest of Donetsk Oblast.
Resulting from Putin’s partial mobilization announced in late September, possibly as many as 200,000 mobilized men are now becoming available for this renewed Russian offensive in Donetsk as of January. The first wave of roughly 100,000 draftees were utterly wasted as they were killed and wounded en masse when they were shipped directly to the front lines in October and November completely untrained. Leaked footage of this new wave of Russian mobilized men training in Belarus, jumping rope and practicing martial arts, might indicate that these soldiers will be little more prepared for modern combat than was the first wave.
This consolidated Russian offensive made up of both Wagner and RuAF units across Donetsk Oblast has put extreme pressure on Ukrainian defensive lines, especially at Bakhmut. Many AFU units who may have otherwise been preparing for offensive action elsewhere in January have been relocated to hold the Bakhmut line. Incremental gains, in the form of a few hundred meters per day, have steadily fallen to the Russian advance. This resulted in the capture of the small mining town of Solodar, fifteen kilometers north of Bakhmut by January 16, as well as a grinding Russian push towards Klishchiivka to the southwest.
By pressing Ukrainian defenses both north and south of Bakhmut simultaneously, the Russians are attempting to cut the E-40 and T0513 highways running west out of Bakhmut which constitute the GLOC’s that maintain the survival of the defense. Life inside of Bakhmut may be the closest thing to Hell on Earth as shelling occurs around the clock, with each side expending tens of thousands of artillery rounds per month. More than one hundred lines of defense exist across the city, some of which change hands hourly, and often result in hand-to-hand combat.
Ukrainian defenders of Bakhmut, although both proud and fierce, have compared life to “Groundhog Day” in which every day is a near identical repeat of the last with nonstop shelling and fighting. “In Bakhmut, one can never have enough ammunition,” another defender wrote, while many more speak of the daily reality in which any minute of any day or night could be their last.
The Russians use their prisoners and mobilized personnel as expendable resources, because due to high losses in equipment, manpower is the only commodity that remains in a surplus. They are repeatedly sent in sacrificial waves of dismounted infantry purely to wear down Ukrainian defenders. Following these bloodbaths come the professional Russian soldiers primarily from the 106th and 217th Airborne Divisions and the 57th Motorized Infantry Brigade deployed around Bakhmut who take advantage of the temporarily degraded status of the exhausted AFU defenders to make tactical gains of a few meters at a time.
Among the dangers for Ukraine at Bakhmut is that every day they lose valuable and trained soldiers to an expendable force of Russian prisoners and conscripts. While Russia can easily replace their losses, Ukraine cannot. Their fierce defense however has yielded three considerable benefits for Ukraine.
First, the attritional fighting consumes more Russian casualties than Ukrainian. With Ukraine on the defensive, Russian forces have spent months impaling themselves against AFU lines at high cost and for minimal gains.
Second, when Lysychansk fell in early July, Bakhmut ceased to be a GLOC and became the next fortress city. Even if it were to be overrun tomorrow, Bakhmut would prove to be a bridge to nowhere, as Ukrainian forces would withdraw west to Kramatorsk and set up another ring of defenses. Since Bakhmut was the only place on the map that Russian forces had any success for six months, its capture became an obsession. Just by holding out, Ukrainian defenders have compelled Russian commanders to sacrifice thousands of soldiers and millions of rounds of ammunition to take a town with little to no strategic value.
Lastly the obsession over Bakhmut created a serious and public rivalry between Wagner financier Prigozhin and the RuAF high command. Not only were both claiming the successes in Bakhmut as their own, but also Prigozhin and Army General Surovikin publicly began criticizing Putin and the Kremlin for mishandling the war. Putin was forced to personally intervene. Prigozhin was substantially sidelined by public statements from the Kremlin affirming that Wagner was not part of the Russian military, and General Surovikin was demoted to second in command. He was replaced on January 11 by Chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov, an important and loyal Putanist who had held the top spot in the army for a decade.
While gains made in and around Bakhmut may appear like the war is turning in Russia’s favor, these are minute successes that one would require a magnifying glass to even find on a standard map of Ukraine. Donetsk Oblast alone spans 26,000 square kilometers while the Russians have spent eight months advancing 32 kilometers from Poposna to Bakhmut and the city remains 50 percent contested. Additionally throughout nearly a year of full-scale war Russian forces have yet to turn a single tactical gain into a strategic success through their ineptitude of employing any form of combined arms maneuver. With seriously constrained equipment availability due to high losses, and drastically reduced artillery shell inventories from overuse and the loss of hundreds of ammunition depots from HIMARS strikes; the chances of a significant Russian breakout or corresponding collapse of Ukrainian defenses in Donetsk Oblast are minuscule.
The current relative stalemate across hundreds of miles of contested front however remains dangerous for Ukraine, as daily losses from attritional war cannot easily be replaced. While the Ukrainians have proven themselves overwhelmingly willing and capable of destroying Russian imperialism they simply need the weapons to do so. Vacillation by Germany over the release of Leopard tanks to Ukraine, citing fear of Russian escalation, has played a significant role in the lack of any substantial Ukrainian offensive action since early November. Releasing all available armaments now to Ukraine is the single best way to shorten the war, and such action will allow NATO to vicariously destroy Russian imperialism vis-a-vis Ukraine, before it ever expands to NATO borders.