Battle for Bakhmut: A Situational Assessment

The Ukrainian city of Bakhmut became a central focal point for the campaign for control of the Donbas region. A significant amount of men and material has been committed to the defence and capture of this city. The town of Soledar, to the north of the city, was overrun by Wagner PMC forces in January, pressuring Ukrainian defenders holding a passageway to Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. Thus, the loss of Bakhmut for Ukraine would be a major blow to Ukrainian morale and would deliver a political victory to Wagner’s patron Yevgeniy Prigozhin.

Key Judgement-1: It is likely that Russian forces will capture and consolidate positions in and around Bakhmut in the coming month.

Key Judgement-2: It is likely that Ukrainian forces will retreat and set up defensive positions to the west of the city in an effort to halt the Russian advance.

Key Judgment-3: It is unlikely that the loss of Bakhmut will result in a collapse of the Ukrainian defensive lines elsewhere in the Donbas.

Key Judgement-1: It is likely that Russian forces will capture and consolidate positions in and around Bakhmut in the coming month.

a. Wagner forces arrayed at least 3 Battalion Tactical Groups (BTG) in the north, east and south of the city. The Wagner 11th Battalion Tactical Group is pressuring Ukrainian defenders on the northern flank [source].

b. The 6th Cossacks Motorized Regiment and the 106th Air Assault Division currently hold the areas around Soledar to the north while the 11th BTG advances southwards. This effectively prevents the Ukrainian 17th and 4th Tank Brigades from redirecting much-needed armour towards Bakhmut [source].

c. There are also reports of LNR and DPR forces consolidating in the north and south of the city [source].

d. Wagner commanders demonstrate a willingness to absorb enormous rates of attrition with human wave attacks while keeping regular Russian units to the rear to capitalize on any breakthrough that Wagner fighters might achieve [source].

e. Russian air assets enjoy a strategic and tactical advantage over Ukrainian air and anti-air forces in eastern Ukraine [source].

Key Judgement-2: It is likely that Ukrainian forces will retreat and set up defensive positions to the west of the city in an effort to halt the Russian advance.

a. Ukraine began constructing a series of defensive lines in Chasiv Yar with heavy machinery [source].

b. A recent CSIS report highlighted the presence of anti-tank and infantry trench systems across the city and its environs [source].

c. Details regarding Wagner’s tactics in Bakhmut are provided via a confidential source. In short, units of roughly a dozen fighters are sent every 30 minutes in human wave attacks. The purpose of these attacks, therefore, is to pin down Ukrainian units long enough for Russian artillery to reposition.

d. These tactics in turn incentivize Ukrainian units to erect defensive fortifications along a 500km axis. This is also reflected by the current disposition of Ukrainian and Russian forces in the Donbas [source].

e. Russian forces in Bakhmut are yet to successfully cross the central portion of the river which runs through eastern Bakhmut. Accordingly, this gives Ukraine ample time to set up defensive fortifications further west [see Fig. 1].

f. Data gathered from short-wave infrared satellite imagery shows several main hot spots concentrated along the line of contact. Thus, the data indicate the presence of heavy fighting in the centre of the Bakhmut pocket [see Fig. 2].

g. The Russian government accused Ukraine of deliberately destroying a key water dam in the region to halt the advance of Russian troops [source].

Figure 1 (Courtesy of Diethnos) Follow Diethnos at https://www.instagram.com/diethnos/?igshid=YmMyMTA2M2Y%3D

Key Judgment-3: It is unlikely that the loss of Bakhmut will result in a collapse of the Ukrainian defensive lines elsewhere in the Donbas.

a. Wagner PMC suffered 4,000 casualties so far in the effort to take the city. Nearly 10,000 more have been injured [source].

b. Prigozhin claims that the capture of Bakhmut will result in a collapse of Ukrainian defensive lines across the whole eastern front [source].

c. Ukrainian forces were able to withdraw from Soledar despite the city being overrun [source].

d. Kupiansk is far more strategically vital than Bakhmut per the railway junction which runs through there [source].

e. As a result, Ukraine amassed a large concentration of firepower to the north and west of the city [source].

f. Russia lost an enormous number of T-70B3, T-70B3M and T-80BV/U tanks thus far, therefore limiting the ability of the Russian military to conduct combined arms offensives [source].

Figure 2

Analytical Summary

We are confident in our assessment that Ukraine will be forced to withdraw from Bakhmut given the developing disposition of Russian forces in the north and the south of the city. We are further confident that the General Staff of Ukraine will elect to withdraw their forces instead of allowing an encirclement to take place and attempting a breakthrough at a later date. We based this assessment on the visible presence of Ukrainian defensive fortifications to the west of the city and previous decisions made in the wake of the disastrous encirclement of Mariupol.

We factored in an alternative scenario into our analysis, in that it is conceivable that Ukrainian forces in Bakhmut are able to hold the line and repel Russian advances. We note the fact that nearly every military and intelligence analyst did not expect Ukraine to successfully repel the Russian advance on Kyiv. Moreover, Ukraine surprised both its allies and enemies when it recaptured large parts of the Kharkiv Oblast in a blitzkrieg counteroffensive last September. It is thus unwise to underestimate the capabilities of Ukrainian defenders.

Intelligence Cut-Off Date: 8 March 2023

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