Bakhmut and the Ukrainian path to victory


For the last 11 months, Russian President Vladimir Putin pressed Wagner Group CEO Yevgeny Prigozhin and General Valery Gerasimov to bring home a win in time for the May 9 Victory Parade in Moscow. That win was supposed to be the capture of Bakhmut.

When they failed, Prigozhin cast blame on the Kremlin. Putin was forced to turn to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and to his own Main Intelligence Directorate of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, to deploy more manpower near to the border and inside Ukraine.

Putin’s obsession with Bakhmut bears some semblance to the 1998 American romantic comedy There’s Something About Mary. Much like the obsession that movie’s male characters had for Cameron Diaz, Putin, his Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, Gerasimov, Prigozhin, and Kadyrov share a similar obsession with Bakhmut. They have been willing to send tens of thousands of soldiers and mercenaries to their deaths to capture a city of little strategic value. Putin and his disciples simply cannot escape the lure of pride and ego.

There is something about Bakhmut though, that once-quaint little salt mining city in eastern Ukraine. Whether it’s the riches of the natural resources that lay beneath its surface, the best chance at a win and perceived pathway to victory, or a simple hatred of the Ukrainian people — it has become the focal point of the war. Currently, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky described the city while attending the G7 Summit, Bakhmut looks more like ground zero in Hiroshima after an atomic bomb destroyed the city during World War II. The old Bakhmut is gone, prompting Zelensky to say, “today Bakhmut is only in our hearts.” Gone, but not forgotten, for Zelensky has vowed to rebuild the city, “Now Hiroshima has rebuilt their city, and we dream of rebuilding our cities.” In time.

Despite Prigozhin’s claim on May 20 that once again Bakhmut had fallen, as he stood in front of the ruins of the city’s train station alongside his band of mercenaries, the battles continue to rage around the city and throughout the Donetsk Oblast.  Occupying an abandoned and destroyed city is not winning; rather, it is simply presenting oneself as a target. Russian unity of command has long since been broken, and Prigozhin cannot be assured that Shoigu, Gerasimov and Kadyrov will come to his defense, should Ukraine launch a counterattack to re-capture the city.

That may come sooner than Prigozhin thinks. As he gloats in front of the Bakhmut train station, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi,  Commander of the Ground Forces of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, said in a Telegram post that “Kyiv’s troops were advancing on Russian forces in the suburbs and getting closer to a tactical encirclement of the city” — specifically the Third Separate Assault Brigade, as they continue to press ahead and gain ground on the flanks of Bakhmut. Prigozhin may have overlooked Murphy’s 13 Law of Combat Operations: “If your attack is going really well, it’s an ambush.” Ironic how those who would encircle Bakhmut are now being encircled in Bakhmut. Karma.

Zelensky and his generals have expertly played Putin and his generals in Bakhmut, forcing Gerasimov to reposition additional Russian forces into the fight for the city, inflicting significant casualties (as many as 100,000) and weakening defensive positions elsewhere along the 900-mile front. Their efforts have bought much-needed time for Ukraine to integrate new weapons systems and equipment into its army, then train and rehearse ahead of a much-anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive. 

Many forecast that the counteroffensive would come in the spring. But as retired Army Lieutenant General and former Commander, United States Army Europe Ben Hodges has stated, “It was never going to be a spring offensive. It’ll start when, where and how the Ukrainian General Staff wants, when all the necessary conditions are set. Not before.”

Those conditions are being set now on Zelensky’s timeline, at a time and place of his generals’ choosing, forcing Gerasimov to react. Somewhere in Ukraine, as many as nine brigades are preparing to liberate their country. The constant state of enhanced readiness, coupled with the unknown, is wearing down Russian defenses.

As Ukraine enhances its offensive and defensive capabilities with additional weapons systems provided by the U.S. and NATO, Russian forces are no longer afforded sanctuary beyond Ukraine’s borders. Russia does not like the leveling of the playing field, and makes that known with constant threats to escalate the war.

The United Kingdom’s Storm Shadow air-launched cruise missile extends Ukraine’s precision deep-strike capability out to 155 miles. This puts Crimea “at risk,” along with troop staging areas, headquarters, ammunition storage areas, and logistics and fuel points that lay beyond the range of the HIMARS. According to British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, the weapon system has already been successfully put to use in Ukraine.

An integrated air defense network, augmented with the U.S. Patriot Missile Defense System, has effectively neutered Russia’s only counter to Ukraine’s battlefield successes. Iranian-supplied Shahed-136 drones, ballistic missiles, and the once-vaunted Kinzhal hypersonic missile are now routinely shot down before reaching their intended civilian targets. Furthermore, Russian aircraft — including the aircraft that delivers the Kinzhal, the MiG-31K — are vulnerable to the Patriot as well.

And now, 15 months into the war, the U.S. has joined the “F-16 coalition,” with the Biden Administration finally authorizing Ukrainian pilots to be trained on the airframes by NATO partners; eventually they will receive the fighter jets. The six to 12 months required to train pilots and support logistically remains a significant constraint, though. In the meantime, MiG-29s provided by Poland and Slovakia will have to bridge the gap.

The announcement alone is yet another blow to the Russian psyche. All is not going well in Ukraine, nor elsewhere in the Russian sphere of influence. Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia juse recently renamed Kaliningrad, Moldova withdrew from the Commonwealth of Independent States interparliamentary assembly, and Georgians protested the resumption of direct flights from Russia at the airport in Tbilisi and in front of the hotel where relatives of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov were allegedly staying.

And now there are reports of unrest in the Belgorod Oblast of southern Russia by a “group of anti-Putin Russian nationals,” aligned with Ukraine and intent on “liberating” the region from Russia, is forcing the Kremlin to address the internal threat posed by a “sabotage and reconnaissance group.”

Bakhmut has become the face of Ukrainian resistance. The war will not be won there, but it will have a predominant role in the outcome. The city will eventually return to Ukraine, and as Zelensky proclaimed, it will be rebuilt. The men and women who gave their lives and limbs to defend the city, such as Oleksandr Matsievsky, will be honored as “heroes of Ukraine.”

These heroes stood and held their ground, repulsed the Russian winter offensive, and bought Zelensky the time he needed to assemble and train a combined-arms army to push Russian forces out of Ukraine.

It is coming — and it was Bakhmut that put Ukraine on the path to victory.

Jonathan Sweet, a retired Army colonel and 30-year military intelligence officer, led the U.S. European Command Intelligence Engagement Division from 2012-14, working with NATO partners in the Black Sea and Baltic regions. Follow him on Twitter @JESweet2022.


  1. Daily Telegraph on May 25:

    “Russia’s war will take decades and will not stop unless Ukraine surrenders, a top Russian official has predicted.
    Western nations have warned Russia could use any ceasefire to rebuild its army and invade again. In comments appearing to corroborate this theory, Dmitry Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council said after any armistice, Russia will fight Ukraine “all over again”.
    Mr Medvedev who has gained notoriety for squaring up to his opponents in the West with aggressive rhetoric, told Russian reporters while on a trip to Vietnam that Russians should brace themselves for prolonged hostilities.
    “This conflict will take a long while – it’s probably here to stay for decades,” he said.
    “This is a new reality, new conditions of life.”

    When he launched the invasion last February, Vladimir Putin claimed it would be a limited military operation that would take weeks if not days to complete.
    Unless the Kyiv government falls, Mr Medvedev said, “there will be three years of armistice, two years of a conflict – and then all of this all over again”. He reiterated the Kremlin’s trope about the “Nazi” regime in Kyiv and said he saw no room for talks while Volodymyr Zelensky was still in power.
    ‘Inevitable rules of war’
    Speaking in Vietnam earlier on Monday, the former Russian president also threatened to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, prompting the defence ministry to give him a dressing down.
    Warning the United States against handing over nuclear weapons to Kyiv, Mr Medvedev said: “If that happens, they will get a nuclear-capable missile flying at them: These are inevitable rules of war.”
    Back in Moscow, a top Russian diplomat promptly reminded Mr Medvedev of a military doctrine that allows the Kremlin to use nuclear weapons only in response to a nuclear strike on its territory.
    “There haven’t been any changes in our approach to this complex and worrying issue,” Sergei Ryabkov, a deputy foreign minister, said.
    There are no reliable reports suggesting that any of the nuclear powers are considering sending some of its arsenal to Ukraine.
    Earlier this week, Russia and Belarus signed an agreement, allowing Moscow to move and store some of its nuclear warheads in Belarus that borders on Ukraine and Poland.
    The Kremlin insisted the deal does not violate Moscow’s commitment on non-proliferation.”

    • So, putler moves his nukes into Belarus and his butt boy is trying to stop Ukraine having a nuclear deterrent. But it has now become essential. For as long as the putler 1000 year Fourth Reich is allowed to continue anyway.
      You can’t live next door to savages and psychopaths without defending yourself by all necessary means.

    • “Earlier this week, Russia and Belarus signed an agreement, allowing Moscow to move and store some of its nuclear warheads in Belarus that borders on Ukraine and Poland.”

      It would be quite easy for the West to counter such an act. It should announce to the rats that any such move will prompt us to arm Ukraine with nukes. Even if we would never do that, we should give mafia land the same medicine by rattling our own nuclear swords for once. We should address the drunk monkey directly and remind the brainless moron of our own and substantial nuclear arsenal. And, we should remind the brain-dead ass wipe that ours will function. Of course, such a scenario is wholly impossible to even imagine with the types of jellyfish floating around in every Western capital city.

  2. Reminder: while Ukraine waits for its F16’s, long range air-to-air missiles; min range of 150 km are needed. These can be fired from Ukraine’s MiGs and SU’s and will help achieve at least a degree of air superiority for the counteroffensive.

Enter comments here: