Saturday, April 1, 2023

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Bakhmut Will fall. Here’s What Russia Will Do Next

Vladimir Putin’s troops may be closing in on Bakhmut but the losses his forces have suffered there could shape what he can do next in his full-scale invasion.

Moscow’s troops are on the cusp of taking the city in the eastern Donetsk region fought over for months, of which they reportedly helped control. Amid rumors of a Ukrainian retreat Western officials suggested would do Kyiv no harm, President Volodymyr Zelensky insisted his troops would stay to prevent Russian forces from moving on “to other towns.”

Russia’s effort in Bakhmut has been supported by the Wagner Group of mercenaries. Its financier Yevgeny Prigozhin, keen to project that his troops can do better than regular Russian forces, said the east of the city had been captured. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday the city could fall “in the coming days” but that its capture by Moscow would not be a “turning point.”

“There’s an ongoing public split between Wagner and the Russian military, and both sides are looking for symbolic wins,” said Sean McFate, a US Army veteran and adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

“It’s a matter of honor for the leadership in charge and they’re paying with the lives of people. If Bakhmut falls, it won’t lead necessarily to decisive victory for one side or the other,” McFate told Newsweek.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a US-based think tank, said on Wednesday if Russian forces took the city, they probably would not have the mechanized forces to advance further, as they lack the combat power and reinforcements needed to exploit a breakthrough.

William Courtney, a former US ambassador and senior fellow at the nonprofit RAND Corporation, told Newsweek that if Russian forces take the rest of Bakhmut, the Ukrainians will fall back to well-prepared positions on higher ground west of the city.

“It’s tough enough in urban warfare to make progress because you have to do it block by block,” he said, but on higher ground, “for Russia to make further advances could be more problematical.”

He noted how in 2022, Ukraine had hinted it would launch a counteroffensive in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, which spurred a movement of Russian troops in the south, before Kyiv’s troops sprung a surprise and took the rest of Kharkiv oblast to the north-east.

“We should presume that the Ukrainians will try to use some deception in their counteroffensive,” Courtney said, which would work best as a combined arms operation, using infantry, armor, artillery and aviation.

“One would expect that the Russians, if they do take all of Bakhmut, are going to be focusing attention on preparing for a Ukrainian counteroffensive and not be caught short the way they were last fall.”

Ukraine’s troop losses in Bakhmut were only one fifth of Russian casualties, according to a NATO source, reported by CNN. Meanwhile, Russian troops have closed in on Bakhmut from the north, south and east, leaving only a narrow supply route in from the west for Ukraine’s troops.

Zev Faintuch, senior intelligence analyst at security firm Global Guardian, said whether Bakhmut falls or not will depend on decisions made by Ukraine’s General Staff, which has the advantage of dealing with far fewer troop losses than Russia.

This gives Ukraine the option of not having to deploy extra troops to the Bakhmut front, allowing its other forces to regenerate and prepare for the coming offensive.

Faintuch said that if Russia took Bakhmut, its next move could either be an advance west along the T0504 highway heading west to the town of Kostiantynivka, advancing northwest to Sloviansk, or pausing and digging in.

“None of these options are great for Russia,” he told Newsweekbecause a Russian move northwest or west, “will be completely unsupported and become vulnerable to attack.”

“To make matters worse, both routes are uphill, giving the Ukrainians highly defensible ground. Staying put would have political blowback. No matter what Russia elects to do, it will be opening itself up to a Ukrainian counterattack,” he added.

What Ukraine does after the end of the battle for Bakhmut depends on where Russian forces go, Faintuch said. While a counteroffensive is potentially coming, it may take a few more months until enough soldiers have trained on the new Western-provided equipment to mount a largescale maneuver.

“That said, smaller counteroffensives could take place based on the tactical situation. Ukrainian planners, likely with some assistance, have done an exceptional job so far and we can expect them to continue to counter at opportune junctures.”

Former British military intelligence officer Philip Ingram said that if the Russians took Bakhmut, they would consolidate their forces there and Russian regular forces might relieve the Wagner Group, although tensions between the two entities will remain.

“Russia will then move on to attacking the next town in the same way—leveling all its buildings to the ground and try and create the conditions to post the Ukrainian defenders back again,” he told Newsweek.

Vladimir Putin’s troops may be closing in on Bakhmut but the losses his forces have suffered there could shape what he can do next in his full-scale invasion.

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