Russia’s failure in Bakhmut is inevitable regardless of Wagner mercenary’s efforts

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian soldiers take a selfie with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, centre, during his visit to Kherson, Ukraine, Monday, Nov. 14, 2022. Ukraine's retaking of Kherson was a significant setback for the Kremlin and it came some six weeks after Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed the Kherson region and three other provinces in southern and eastern Ukraine — in breach of international law — and declared them Russian territory. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

If Russia ultimately fails in its grinding effort to seize the embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, such a setback would have political implications and be a psychological blow for Russian forces, according to one expert.

Russia has been trying to capture the city in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region for months, reportedly losing large numbers of soldiers and rapidly depleting ammunition and other supplies. Forces aligned with the Russian mercenary Wagner Group, founded by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, have reportedly been leading the assault.

Though Russia has reportedly secured some marginal gains around Bakhmut in the past few weeks, recent analyses indicate that its prospects of continuing current operations against the city are dim. The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a U.S. think tank, wrote in its Wednesday campaign assessment that the Bakhmut offensive is likely “culminating.”

“U.S. military doctrine defines culmination as the ‘point at which a force no longer has the capability to continue its form of operations, offense or defense,’ and ‘when a force cannot continue the attack and must assume a defensive posture or execute an operational pause,'” the ISW wrote in the assessment.

It continued: “If Russian forces in Bakhmut have indeed culminated, they may continue to attack aggressively. Culminated Russian forces may continue to conduct ineffective squad-sized assaults against Bakhmut, though these assaults would be very unlikely to make operationally significant gains.”

Russia’s Fight for Bakhmut

Retired U.S. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, who formerly served as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Europe, told Newsweek that the credibility of Prigozhin and the Wagner Group is at stake in the Bakhmut battle.

Suppose the forces are ultimately forced to withdraw from Bakhmut or end their effort there. In that case, Hodges said, this will be a “blow” to Prigozhin’s prestige and “psychologically” damaging to the Russians overall.

On the other hand, if Russia somehow took Bakhmut or Ukraine decided that it wasn’t important enough militarily to keep expending men and resources on, “you can be sure the Russians would play that up in the biggest possible way for their own audience,” Hodges said.

Experts have previously said that Russia has little to gain strategically or militarily by seizing Bakhmut. But it could be symbolic for Russian President Vladimir Putin, so he can show some military victory after facing embarrassing setbacks in the war.

William Reno, a professor and chair of the political science department at Northwestern University, said there would be “little tactical consequence” whether Russia took or failed to take Bakhmut.

“Russians probably expend more munitions trying to capture the town than Ukrainian forces expend to defend it,” Reno said. “Russian gains, such as they are, ordinarily would not justify the resources and effort they could have applied to better effect elsewhere. This is what wars of attrition look like on the battlefield.”

Reno explained a couple of hypotheses, which aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, on why Russia may be so focused on seizing Bakhmut despite the limited tactical benefits that may offer. One of these is that Putin’s subordinates may not be entirely transparent with him about the true situation in Ukraine, over fears for their safety.

“As with many authoritarian systems, leadership cuts itself off from information needed to make effective decisions,” Reno said.

Another theory is that Russia’s Bakhmut offensive may “reflect Putin’s efforts to balance bureaucratic forces” aligned with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Prigozhin, and even the Kadyrovtsy troops loyal to Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov.

“Allocating different tasks across the battlefield keeps these groups in contention with one another for presidential support,” Reno said. “That makes it hard for any to assert their own views and interests.”

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