Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was famously averse to retreating. “However skillfully effected a retreat may be, it always lessens the morale of an army,” he noted. “In a battle the enemy loses practically as much as you do; while in a retreat you lose and he does not.”
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appears to be of like mind — over the course of the war, he was reluctant to pull out of the salt-mining town of Soledar earlier this year after a nearly six month-long fight, and he has now rejected calls to withdraw from an even more prolonged and ferocious fight in nearby Bakhmut.
There’s been some behind-the-scenes disquiet among the Ukrainian ranks about continuing with this almost 9-month-long battle at Bakhmut. And earlier this week, United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters that “if the Ukrainians decide to reposition, I wouldn’t view that as an operational or strategic setback.”
Russia, meanwhile, has been determined to record a victory at Bakhmut — located just 6 miles southwest of Soledar, which was overrun two months ago after Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group sacrificed thousands of its untrained fighters there.
So, for Ukraine, is Bakhmut really worth it? Or is Zelenskyy being Napoleon-like in his refusal to disengage from what appears to be a meat-grinder of a battle?
Bakhmut is the longest and bloodiest battle of the war so far, and it has seen Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin once again hurl his men — mostly recruited from Russian jails — into the maelstrom with a reckless abandon that’s shocked observers and seasoned fighters on both sides. Andrey Medvedev, a Russian defector who recently fled to Norway, told reporters last month that the former convicts were being used as cannon fodder at Bakhmut. “In my platoon, only three men out of 30 survived. We were then given more prisoners, and many of them also died,” he said.
But the Ukrainians acknowledge they’ve also been suffering significant casualties at Bakhmut, which Russia is coming ever closer to encircling. They claim Russia’s losing seven soldiers for each Ukrainian life lost — though NATO military officials put the ratio closer to 5-to-1.
Among those killed last week was Ukraine’s youngest battalion commander, 27-year-old Dmytro Kotsiubailo — a veteran who was awarded the Hero of Ukraine medal for his bravery after joining up to fight in the Donbas in 2014. One of his men, U.S. volunteer James Vasquez, tweeted: “This is a devastating loss to all our men. A prolific young leader and fearless respected battalion commander. Tomorrow we will go in with heavy hearts.”
Amid such losses, some analysts have questioned the tactical sense in fighting over the now wrecked town that once had a population of 70,000, arguing this has become more of a symbolic confrontation — one Ukraine could disengage from without risk to neighboring and more important towns. And some Western officials have been privately contending that Zelenskyy may have been better advised to withdraw from Bakhmut much sooner, in much the same way Russia made a tactical retreat in November — albeit, in their case, belatedly.
But this week, Zelenskyy defended his decision to keep the country’s forces fighting in the besieged town. In a television address and an interview with CNN, the leader said “this is tactical,” and emphasized that Ukraine’s top generals were united behind his decision. Zelenskyy’s office had also issued a statement making it clear he had the backing of the popular Valerii Zaluzhny, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, and Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, who said the importance of holding the town was “only increasing.”
According to Zelenskyy, if Russia succeeds in finally capturing Bakhmut, they could go further. “They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction,” he said. “That’s why our guys are standing there.”
He also included an additional reason for asking his troops to doggedly slog it out as well: “Russia needs at least some victory — a small victory — even by ruining everything in Bakhmut, just killing every civilian there,” he said. Adding that if Russia is able to “put their little flag” on top of the town, it would help “mobilize their society in order to create this idea they’re such a powerful army.”
This decision to hold for as long as possible in Bakhmut is now gaining support from some top U.S. generals too, who say Zelenskyy’s right to not order a retreat. But their thinking differs from Zelenskyy’s public reasoning.
“I think, at this moment, using Bakhmut to allow the Russians to impale themselves on it is the right course of action, given the extraordinary casualties that the Russians are taking,” retired general and former CIA Director David Petraeus told POLITICO.
Petraeus added that “the Russian troops in Bakhmut are not just Wagner conscripts and former felons. Some of Russia’s best troops are there as well. So, the Russians are committing an enormous amount of their resources on a very costly offensive, the outcome of which is still uncertain.”
“Obviously, this all hinges a bit on an assumption that the Russians don’t have inexhaustible manpower, and I think that’s the case right now,” he said. “For example, they literally only have one division that’s not already committed in battle. That’s a very small reserve to have available to exploit any battlefield success.”
Petraeus sees no chance that Russia will be able to turn its significantly larger national population to its military advantage anytime soon. “Russia’s next scheduled conscription cycle doesn’t start until April 1. It appears they are doing another what’s called ‘ghost conscription,’ a sort of irregular local draft once again. But that has not been particularly successful in the past,” he said. So, the big difference in kill-ratios — whether it’s 7-to-1 or 5-to-1 — does mean there are serious battlefield ramifications for Russia.
This meat-grinder argument is maybe one Zelenskyy can’t make explicit himself because, in a sense, Ukrainian lives are being “sacrificed.” Just this week the Ukrainian leader had said, “of course, we have to think about the lives of our military.” But this is a key reason, according to Petraeus, for continuing the fight at Bakhmut — Ukraine’s losses are justified by the much larger toll being taken by the Russian military.
That toll is especially high thanks to Russia’s infighting and lack of coordination, according to Mark Hertling, another retired U.S. general and former commander of the U.S. Army Europe and the Seventh U.S. Army. According to Hertling, the battle of Bakhmut is showing the lack of unity of command in the Russian forces, with various commanders seemingly at cross-purposes the whole time. “Soldiers thrown into a fight where there is no ‘unity of purpose’ suffer the most,” he tweeted.
“It is to Ukraine’s benefit to leverage the advantage the defense [at Bakhmut] gives them to inflict as many casualties as possible on Russia, before Russia can bring more forces to bear in a large offensive this spring,” said John Barranco, a U.S. Marine colonel. “Bakhmut itself will not strategically alter the course of the war significantly for either side, but every piece of ground Ukraine yields, gives Russia — a larger force — the opportunity to dig in and have the defensive advantage” when Ukrainians launch their own summer offensive, he added.
So, for now, Zelenskyy has little choice but to ask his doughty fighters to hold at Bakhmut. The cost is much higher for Russia.