Ukraine’s battle for Bakhmut has gained strategic importance in fact, and could lead to a serious weakening of the best forces of the Wagner group, depriving Russia of some of the most effective and most difficult to replace strike units. The culmination of the Wagner attacks has already happened once, prompting the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) to commit part of its elite airborne troops to the battle. It is possible that the battle will reach its climax before the capture of the city, again forcing the Russian military to choose between abandoning the effort or throwing more high-quality troops into the fray.
The possibility of inflicting a heavy tactical defeat on the elite elements of the Wagner group, and on other elite units, in the conditions of a defensive urban war, where the gradient of attrition is strongly favorable to the defenders, is attractive to Ukraine.
In its daily analysis of the situation on the front, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) commented on the decision of the Ukrainian authorities to continue the defense of Bakhmut. Yesterday, it was announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky after a meeting with Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny and the Commander of the Ukrainian Ground Forces, Colonel-General Oleksandr Sirsky. Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoliak also said that the Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut has so far “achieved its objectives” and is a “great strategic success”. The Ukrainians’ statements are also a response to the growing concern of Ukraine’s Western allies about the costs of Ukraine’s continued defense of Bakhmut.
USA: Fall of Bakhmut will not turn the tide of war for Russia
The capture of the city is more symbolic than operational
ISW recalls the assessment that Bakhmut is not operationally or strategically essential to the Russian military either, as it will not open a window for the continuation of the Russian offensive in the Donetsk region. And Russian forces have already suffered such heavy losses in the fighting for the city that their attack will most likely culminate after they capture it, if not before.
But Ukraine’s battle for Bakhmut acquires strategic importance precisely because of the exhaustion of the elite manpower of the Russian army, as well as the prisoners, mainly from PMC “Wagner”, who are just cannon fodder, and the constant elimination of dozens and hundreds of them in Bakhmut means, that they will not be available for more important battles. The ISW recalls that it had already identified earlier in the year the increasing presence of Russian airborne forces around Bakhmut, indicating that conventional Russian troops may be supporting or even displacing Wagner’s operations around Bakhmut.
The financier of the “Wagner” group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, apparently also fears this, and this is evident in a number of his statements in recent days. His words indicate that he fears that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) is fighting the Battle of Bakhmut “down to the last fighter of the Wagner” and that he is exposing his forces to destruction. Prigozhin makes an urgent appeal to the Russian Command for ammunition for the “Wagner “, then warns that Ukraine has formed a number of offensive groups in the Donetsk region to “unblock” the Bakhmut blockade. Prigozhin also claims that if Wagner does not receive the necessary ammunition and reinforcements and the Bakhmut blockade is broken, everything is essentially lost, and the Ukrainian army will reach not only the borders from before February 2022, but also “further”, hinting at attacks on Russian territory.
Wagner was denied access to the headquarters of the Russian army in Ukraine
The rift between the private army and the Russian military leadership is widening
Prigogine’s request that he would stay with “Wagner” until the bitter end. suggests that he is working on positioning himself as a martyr for the ideological cause that Bakhmut has come to represent in the information space of Russian military bloggers.
A serious degradation or destruction of PMC Wagner’s elite fighting force would have long-term positive effects beyond the battlefield. Prigogine demonstratively increased his efforts to spread Wagner’s militarism and ideology throughout Russia, and his propaganda rested precisely on the role of the private military company in Bakhmut. ISW recalls the opening of several recruitment centers in sports clubs throughout Russia, the opening of a youth branch and school visits. The success of “Wagner” in Bakhmut so far gives Prigozhin a big advantage in the information space, strengthening his reputation and increasing his popularity in a way that is likely to have a long-term impact in Russia’s domestic sphere. Prigozhin was one of Russia’s most extreme pro-war nationalists. He is one of the few who have a serious military force loyal to his owner. At times, he even looked like a possible threat to Putin, and as a possible successor. To damage Prigogine’s reputation, influence and power in Russia would be an important achievement in terms of the long-term prospects for restoring sanity in Russia. This is a goal that is in the interests of both America and Ukraine, and it raises the stakes in the Battle of Bakhmut beyond matters of the front theater specifically.
In today’s report, ISW also found that The Kremlin is returning to its previously unsuccessful attempts at a campaign to recruit volunteers and cryptomobilization to avoid issuing a new mobilization order. Russian Telegram channels have started again to advertise the recruitment of new applicants to existing volunteer battalions. Some local Russian officials are also setting up mobile recruitment centers to advertise voluntary contract military service, a phenomenon ISW observed during the previous volunteer recruitment drive between late May 2022 and September 2022. ultranationalist social groups also increasingly advertise military recruitment. This trend is observed in the enrollment of both teenagers in the Luhansk region and reserve officers under the age of 65 in the DPR.
Russia has lost 5 times more soldiers in Bakhmut than Ukraine
Russia’s efforts to capture Bakhmut have greatly impaired its capacity for further offensives
Such conscription campaigns may also mean that the Kremlin does not have enough combat-ready reserves to continue its offensive operations after the Battle of Bakhmut and the failed offensives around Ugledar and in Luhansk Oblast.
Such a voluntary recruitment campaign was underway in late May 2022, when the Russian army began to experience a shortage of reserves from a costly offensive along the Severodonetsk-Lisichansk line – more than a month before the culmination of the Russian attack in the Luhansk region. Putin later abandoned his nationwide campaign to recruit volunteers and in the summer of 2022 ordered a forced call-up of reservists in response to a large-scale Ukrainian counter-offensive in Kharkiv Oblast in September 2022. The Kremlin may be repeating such efforts in the hope that such irregular forces will be sufficient to preserve the Russian initiative on the front line. However, Russian veterans and military bloggers note that Russia will not be able to achieve its goals of reaching the administrative borders of the Donetsk region without a large-scale mobilization of personnel, the economy and industry.
Efforts to recruit volunteers show that so far The Kremlin has no intention of launching a new mobilization wave before the summer of 2023. as the spring conscription cycle is scheduled to begin on April 1st. Western officials have previously said that Putin has been delaying the announcement of a second mobilization wave since January and is leaning toward a “quiet mobilization” out of concern for the stability of his regime.
Western analysts have pointed to numerous indicators that Russia is preparing for a second mobilization wave as early as the fall of 2022, but Putin missed the mobilization window to avoid further internal opposition, as well as straining a system that clearly cannot cope with its administrative capacity second mobilization in delaying the fall cycle of conscription by one month.
Zelensky: The operation in Bakhmut is one of the most effective
The defense of the city continues