Ukraine gained an advantage over Russia by doggedly defending Bakhmut, a military expert told Insider.
“The Russians have had a Bakhmut fixation,” said Mick Ryan, a retired Maj. Gen. in the Australian army.
The country reclaimed territory near the city last week after a series of surprise attacks.
Ukraine is gaining momentum and reclaiming territory in Bakhmut after months of brutal and bloody fighting in the country’s east that left thousands of Russian and Ukrainian soldiers dead.
Ukraine looked to shake up the essentially stalemated frontline near the one-time mining town this month, which has been left a decimated shell of a city after months of attrition warfare so ruthless it has become known as “the meat grinder.”
Last week, Ukraine launched multiple surprise counterattacks, reclaiming several miles of territory around Bakhmut in the country’s largest land gain since its autumn offensive in Kherson.
Russia fought back and has managed to maintain uneasy control over most of the destroyed city despite Ukraine’s advances. Still, Ukrainian officials are touting the gains as proof of purchase of their monthslong approach to Russia’s attacks in Bakhmut — defend the city as long as necessary to exhaust and deplete Russian troops ahead of Ukraine’s much-anticipated counter-offensive.
Ukraine’s dogged defense of the strategically unimportant city prompted calls from Western allies and military strategists earlier this year to abandon the town, voicing concerns that the endless fighting could leave Ukraine’s troops wounded and unprepared for future attacks.
Russia, meanwhile, has dedicated the majority of its time, efforts, and resources this year to the fight in Bakhmut, though analysts are still uncertain why the former mining town became such a symbol for both sides, as the city’s location would not necessarily offer Russia a wide-open pathway to claiming the rest of the region.
“The Russians have had a Bakhmut fixation,” Mick Ryan, a retired Major General in the Australian army and a military strategist, told Insider earlier this month. “To their credit, the Ukrainians identified this and exploited it.”
“Exploiting it has led to Ukrainian casualties, but at the end of the day, war isn’t about absolutes,” he added. “It’s about relative advantages.”
The White House said last month that Russia suffered 100,000 casualties just this year, including 20,000 deaths.
“There’s no question that the fighting around Bakhmut has chewed up both sides,” Mark Cancian, a retired US Marine Corps colonel and a senior advisor with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ security program, told Insider earlier this month.”
The Ukrainian military does not release casualty numbers, but military experts believe the country has suffered significant losses in Bakhmut, though notably fewer than Russia. The country has not had to expend any of its troops currently being trained for its coming offensive, Col. Serhiy Cherevatiy, a spokesman for Ukrainian forces in eastern Ukraine, confirmed to The Wall Street Journal this week.
“The Ukrainians saw that they could generate a relative advantage over the Russians by killing more Russians than they lost themselves in Bakhmut,” Ryan said.
Russia’s offensive in Bakhmut has been plagued by small, slow advances, as well as increasingly public infighting between Yevgeny Prigozhin, the leader of the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group, which has shouldered the brunt of the fighting in Bakhmut, and Russia’s military brass.
Ukraine’s recent gains, while relatively small, appear to be already having a psychological effect on Russia. Ukraine shared a video last week of Russian soldiers running away from the city while being chased by armored vehicles.
On Sunday, the Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed that two Russian commanders were killed in fighting near the city while repelling Ukrainian efforts to break through the frontline.
“We lured the enemy into a Bakhmut trap,” Cherevatiy, the Ukrainian spokesperson, told The Journal. “The enemy has lost an incredible amount of manpower. We’re continuing to bleed the enemy.”
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