June 5, 2023

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Ukraine will lose Bashmut, but it will gain time, and possibly war with it

What is the significance of Russia’s takeover of Bashmut? Analysts say its significance is symbolic rather than strategic. In the end, only Ukraine benefited from the blockade.

Michael Mass

There was confusion for a moment. Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin shouted again on Saturday that Bashmut had been truly and once and for all conquered by Russia, but instead of the usual stern denials from Kiev, this time the Ukrainian assertion appeared to be hanging in the air.

However, President Volodymyr Zelensky sounded quite somber at the G7 summit on Sunday when he said, “It’s sad, it’s a tragedy, but at the moment Bashmuyt is only in our memory.” It wasn’t an obvious “no”, and according to many it was almost a “yes”. Only then did Kiev give a definite answer: Zelensky meant to say that there was nothing left of Pashmut, and that the city, which had been the subject of fierce fighting for nine months, in fact ceased to exist. When asked by a journalist if the Russian claim of Bashmut’s fall was true, Zelensky is said to have replied, “I don’t think so”, but this answer did not reach the wire services.

Several square kilometers of rubble

So if Kiev is telling the truth, Ukrainian forces are still holding out on May 21. In practice, that doesn’t mean much: on 10 May the BBC visited the last Ukrainian soldiers firing on the Russians who had taken control of the rest of Pashmut from the last buildings and the last block at the far southwestern edge of town. “The prize they are fighting for is the fragmented skeleton of a city,” the BBC said. “Even if the Russians manage to capture the last piece of Bashmuth, it will be nothing more than a Pyrrhic victory.”

This isn’t entirely true, but it doesn’t make much difference either. After a bitter and bloody battle that lasted 293 days in which tens of thousands of men perished for a few square kilometers of rubble, planting a flag is at least a psychological boost to the victor, in this case Russia. On the one hand, it would be a heavy blow to the Ukrainians, says Peter Wijinga of The Hague Center for Strategic Studies (HCSS), but “Ukraine only got better in the end” from the protracted Bashmuyet massacre.

Analysts believe that the real profit for Bachmoet will soon become clear. Ukraine kept the Russians busy for nine months, gained valuable time, and made the most of that time: It built up nine assault brigades (with three more on the way) and managed to give its soldiers the necessary training. There was also a time when large quantities of powerful Western weapons would be supplied to Ukraine, which would soon be able to carry out its long-awaited major offensive.

‘Failed Winter Offensive’

Moreover, Ukraine literally bled the Russian army to death at Bashmut. “We call it wear and tear in military terms,” ​​says Wijninga. Tens of thousands of soldiers were killed or wounded at Bashmut, and the losses on the Russian side were many times greater than those suffered by the Ukrainians. The Russian army can no longer even launch its own offensive, says Frans Osinga, a professor of military sciences in Leiden. He speaks of an “unsuccessful winter offensive”, with Russia massing 300,000 people into battle, without achieving much. “They sacrificed 60,000 men to conquer twenty or thirty square kilometres.” It was only when the mercenaries of Wagner’s group were called in that any progress was made on the Russian side, very slowly.

Saturday wasn’t the first time Prigozhin reported taking Bachmut. Recently, he had repeatedly said that the city had fallen, but each time it turned out not to be entirely true. However, the part of the city where the Ukrainian troops were still was decreasing. And now there is almost nothing left to wait for the last Ukrainian to leave.

Ukraine’s eventual abandonment of Bashmut entirely, Osinga says, “should surprise no one”. He suspects that the Ukrainians knew this from the start. They withdrew their forces whenever the situation became unacceptable. It’s always enough to “avoid the worst of losses,” he says: “If you really want the city, you fight to the last man.” Now they’re holding onto those last few buildings for as long as possible, to buy that last bit of time.

Strategically irrelevant

No one can predict how things will continue after Bashmut. It depends on what Russia will do, which is no less difficult than predicting where Ukraine will continue its offensive. What analysts do know is that Bachmoet is of no strategic importance. Bashmut is actually a crossroads, but these roads all connect the north with the south, there is also a road to the east, but in the west there is nothing but a small road that is held at gunpoint by Ukraine.

It was sometimes said that Bashmut would be a “gateway” to the West, to the highly strategic cities of Kramatorsk and Sloviansk, but that should be taken seriously, according to analysts. Wijninga: “Zelensky said in the past: If Bachmut falls, the way to the West is open. But I think he pushed that too hard to get Western support for Ukraine.”

Great area

According to Wijinga, there is a “very heavy and higher line of defense” between Bashmoyet and Kramatorsk, from which Ukrainian forces will withdraw. The question is whether Russia still believes it is strong enough to push through and attack those positions, or whether it cherished the victory at Bashmuyt and will now await the announced Ukrainian offensive there.

According to Osinga, this attack should not be viewed too optimistically. Ukraine has had notable successes in the past year and has now also received many new Western weapons, but he doubts that this will be enough to immediately recover all occupied territories: “Russia still occupies 17 percent of Ukrainian territory, and you have not only taken that back.” But You can assume that Ukraine can win back a large area.

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