Conflict Alerts # 594, 2 March 2023
In the news
On 24 February, Russia’s Wagner Group founder Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed victory over Berkhivka, a village situated in the northwest of Bakhmut. Prigozhin said: “Berkhivka is fully under our control. Units of Wagner Private Military Company are in full control of Berkhivka.” On 25 February, Prigozhin claimed the capturing of Yahidne village located in the north of Bakhmut. In response, Ukraine’s armed forces denied the claims but reported on the continuing offensives around Bakhmut.
On 28 February, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “Bakhmut direction – the situation is getting more and more difficult. The enemy is constantly destroying everything that can be used to protect our positions, gain a foothold, and ensure defense.”
The UK Ministry of Defence initially reported on defences held by Ukraine in the logistical routes despite the offensive launched by Russia. On 20 February, it reported on increased casualties in the Russian army, especially in the 155th elite forces and 40th naval infantry brigades due to its pursuit in Bakhmut and Vuhledar. In a statement: “It is likely that Russia will claim that Bakhmut has been captured to align with the anniversary, regardless of the reality on the ground.” On 16 February, US Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council, John Kirby said: “..the most vicious fighting is happening around Bakhmut.”
Issues at large
First, the geographic significance of Bakhmut. Russia was the first to claim an advance in the area in February. An important city located on the highway toward Lysychansk is considered a strategic route for Ukraine troops to replenish stocks. The area gains attention for its economic significance and indirect strategic advantage. Other than the industrial rich nature of producing sparkling wine and table salt, the city connects to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. Although Kramatorsk is similarly industrial rich in the production of mining equipment, Sloviansk contains a strategic highway M03 which directly connects Kyiv, and Kharkiv, extending to Russia’s border close to “Rostov-on-Don.” Apart from the geography, ethnically the city is dominated by 70 per cent of Ukrainians and less than 30 per cent of Russians.
Second, the claim game. In the prolonged fight between Ukraine and Russia, the claim over the areas surrounding and the damage incurred have not provided any clear image of the on-ground situation. While the Wagner Group claimed to capture the villages in the north and northwest of Bakhmut, Ukraine has not accepted its claims but confirmed that the fight is becoming intense and challenging to defend. Whereas, the US National Security Council and the UK’s Ministry of Defence have added details on Russia incurring personnel loss and have remarked on the brutal nature of war in Bakhmut. However, none of the statements given by the actors give clarity on the state of Bakhmut. From the differentiating claims, the intensity of the battle and the resource loss is the only takeaway.
Third, Ukraine’s push for more offensive. The persistent defence held by Ukraine against Russia with the given support from Europe and the US has been the persuading factor to demand more weapon systems. Since the battle continues to incur major losses, with Russia observed to be deploying a mass number of troops, the US, the EU, and NATO members are pressured to fulfil the promises over advanced weapons and battle tank delivery. For Ukraine, the support given so far in the form of intelligence, advanced ground weapon systems, air defence capability, and battle tanks have been sufficient to withstand Russian attacks in Bakhmut. However, as it aims to put an end to the enduring loss of its resources, Ukraine has pushed up demands for modern aviation to halt Russia in the region. This means Ukraine’s military strategy is slightly diverging in countering Russia from defensive to offensive mode.
First, an expensive war with no significant outcome so far. Russia’s drive to continue the war for six months despite the logistical challenges and personal loss at the military and paramilitary levels might not reap the benefit. If Russia’s goal is strategic and aims to take control of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk eventually, the losses and exhaustion experienced in the battle for Bakhmut will slow down or reduce the attacking capacity of the Russian military. Thereby, barring it from going forward or adding a limitation to its larger posture in the eastern Donbass. Ukraine and its supporting countries would have to stretch its military expenditure to be on par with Russia. This would only result in increasing the war cost and damages.
Second, an emerging break in Russia’s inner circle. The extensive role played by the Wagner Group in Bakhmut and the supreme image surrounding its founder Prigozhin has raised questions over Russia’s military command. Prigozhin’s capacity to withstand the fight and command the group has stirred debate over Russian leadership.