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The meaning of the battle for Bakhmut 

Without taking the city Vladimir Putin cannot achieve his war aims.

By Lawrence Freedman

“Loud thunder but few raindrops” – Chinese proverb

This proverb was used by the historian Sergey Radchenko to describe the much heralded Putin-Xi summit, which concluded on 22 March. It might also describe a general feature of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Much is promised with boasts and bluster but in the end the results are meagre – whether we are referring to attempts to persuade Western countries to stop supporting Ukraine or coerce Ukraine into abandoning the war, or to Russia’s offensive operations. The costs, of course, of these failed efforts are anything but meagre. The losses and suffering caused by this war have been immense, which makes its utter futility even more egregious.

It also raises a question about how long Russia can keep this going. The conventional wisdom is “for ever” because this is Vladimir Putin’s war and he is firmly in power. Russia’s economy is ticking over and there are no signs of revolution in the air. The only way to bring this war to a conclusion, therefore, is by means of a successful Ukrainian offensive. This has also been my view for some time.

Yet my aim is not to predict, but to look at developments and trends and consider future possibilities that may not come to pass but are worth consideration. And so I consider the possibility that Russia’s current offensive may fail – likely but not yet certain – and the implications of Putin having no obvious route to victory. It is in the context of this possibility that China’s peace plan needs to be viewed.

The Putin-Xi summit

The big political event in late March was Xi Jinping’s state visit to Moscow. It reminded me of another Chinese proverb – which I heard years ago in a discussion of joint ventures with China – “same bed, different dreams”. Putin might have hoped that the summit would demonstrate that Russia is still a great power, a natural partner to an even greater power. Yet in ways that would not have been lost on most Russians, the summit demonstrated weakness, and growing dependence on China as a result of what is now an almost clean break with Europe.

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The Putin-Xi joint statement spoke of a “comprehensive partnership and strategic interaction” that was “developing steadily”, a condition somewhat short of “full steam ahead”. Instead of February 2022’s “partnership without limits” the relationship was described in convoluted language, neither a “military-political alliance”, with “a bloc and confrontational nature”, nor “directed against third countries”, but instead “priority partners”. This is a partnership with limits.

One impression left by the statement was that those Russians engaged in the drafting had their minds on other things, and so lamely signed up to all the positions that the Chinese wanted them to endorse, including Beijing’s stance on Taiwan, and other grand-sounding endeavours (the “Russian Side attaches great importance and will study with interest the Global Civilisation Initiative of the Chinese Side”; “the Russian Side notes the positive significance of the Chinese Side’s concept of building a ‘community with a common destiny for mankind’ ”). In return there was little tangible. The economic benefits this partnership offers to Russia will be on Chinese terms.

One might not expect a document of this sort to speak openly about Chinese arms transfers to Russia, but the flurry of concern that anything on a large scale might be agreed appears now to have died down. Some ammunition with Chinese markings was found in Ukraine. This might be the result of smuggling and was at any rate unimportant compared with the systems Western countries are now delivering to Ukraine. And even if there were side deals that we do not know about they will provide no political boost to Putin.

In terms of the conduct of the war the most interesting aspects of the statement were on nuclear weapons and a possible peace process. On the nuclear issue the statement helpfully repeated the formula that has now become standard when leaders of great powers meet (first used by Gorbachev and Reagan and used more recently, in the summer of 2021, by Biden and Putin) that “there can be no winners in a nuclear war and it must never be unleashed”.

[See also: Will Putin go nuclear?]

The language on Ukraine can be taken as a stunning example of diplomatic cognitive dissonance or utter cynicism according to taste. This is because it starts with expressions of belief in the need to respect the UN Charter and international law. António Guterres, the secretary-general of the UN, and the bulk of the organisation’s membership consider that Russia is waging an aggressive war against Ukraine in violation of the Charter. No mention was made of the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant for Putin for war crimes (with a focus on the abduction of children), or the major report issued by a UN-mandated body that details all Russia’s violations of international law.

But while not drawing attention to the implications of the application of international law to the current war, at least the Chinese stopped short of signing up to Russia’s justifications. “The Russian Side positively assesses the objective and unbiased position of the Chinese Side on the Ukrainian issue.” After chiding Nato for seeking to take advantage of the situation, the statement continues: “The Chinese side positively assesses the willingness of the Russian side to make efforts to restart the peace talks as soon as possible.

“Russia welcomes China’s readiness to play a positive role in the politico-diplomatic settlement of the Ukrainian crisis and the constructive considerations set forth in the document drawn up by the Chinese side ‘On China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukrainian Crisis.’ ”

What follows is the customary warnings about respecting legitimate concerns about security and not fuelling the conflict, but also encourages “responsible dialogue” and the need for “the international community” to “support the constructive efforts being made” to get a sustainable settlement.

The earlier Chinese document on a political settlement, which I have written about here, also affirms the core principle of the UN Charter and international law while avoiding the logical conclusion that this requires Russia to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. But also absent is any suggestion that Russia has a right to annex a large chunk of Ukrainian territory. It is this ambiguity, combined with Russia’s growing dependence on China, that gives Beijing an opportunity to try its hand at mediation. It had a recent success in helping to broker a rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, although the two parties would have probably got to this point without Chinese help so there is no comparison in terms of the tractability of the problem. Away from conversations with Xi, the Russians have shown no interest in serious negotiations. Nor has Xi yet taken the next step of talking to Volodymyr Zelensky, despite the Ukrainian president’s efforts to initiate a conversation. This may just be a statement designed to show where China stands on the war rather than the basis for any serious diplomatic effort. There is therefore no reason to assume that this initiative will get very far. The core positions of the two sides remain far apart.

And yet. If it is the case that attitudes towards ceasefires and eventual peace settlements depend on the outcomes of the battles for territory currently under way, and if Russia continues to underperform and decides it needs to pause the conflict and even find a way to wind it down, then Putin’s first call will most likely be to Xi. If this is at all possible Ukraine and its Western supporters need to start work on how to respond. Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, has observed that “Ukraine will likely regain its territory through a mix of military and diplomatic means”. Any diplomatic means is likely to have a role for China.

One indication of whether a serious diplomatic initiative can develop may come with the visit of the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, to Beijing. Sánchez will soon take over the rotating presidency of the European Union. He has said that he will tell Xi “that it is the Ukrainians themselves who will lay down the conditions for the beginning of this peace, when it arrives”, and will add: “The most important – the most fundamental – thing is to preserve an international rule-based order, which depends on respecting the UN charter. One of those fundamental principles is respecting territorial integrity – in this case the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which is being violated by President Putin.”

This is the core Western position and Ukraine’s conditions for peace depend on Russian withdrawal. That will not change. But it will be hard to ignore any movement on the Russian side if this is communicated through Beijing. President Macron of France is also scheduled to visit Beijing in April. Xi might like to work with Europeans on a new initiative if only to wean them off the United States, assumed to be irredeemably hostile.

All this is speculative for now but the Americans need to think about the implications of developments of this sort, not least because the Biden administration will still be central to any future diplomacy, and it will not want to be caught out by a flurry of activity that creates problems in transatlantic relations.

Why Russia’s offensive matters to Putin

Putin regularly professes a desire for peace but with the routine condition that everyone, including Kyiv, must first accept all the recent annexations (the oblasts of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson), which they won’t. If Putin ever accepts that these annexations must be abandoned then he is in trouble back home. The right will be furious if it appears that he is prepared to surrender declared Russian territory; everyone else will be furious that so much has been wasted for so little gain. He therefore has no choice but to persevere with his current strategy, and to this end he has put his country on a war-footing.

This has led to the view that only a successful Ukrainian offensive can force the Kremlin to look for a way out. Much effort is going into Ukrainian preparations for this offensive, with new units being formed, full of recently delivered equipment. Only once the offensive is well under way will we be able to see whether this is as much of a “game-changer” as people hope. (For those interested, General Mick Ryan provides a helpful guide to the issues.)

What interests me here is the assumption that more depends on the success of the Ukrainian offensive than the failure of the Russian. This implies that the current situation satisfies Putin so that the real issue is how well his forces can hold their defensive lines against the coming Ukrainian onslaught. But Putin is clearly not happy with the current situation. If he was, he would have offered a ceasefire months ago in the hope and expectation of freezing the territorial status quo. Russia does not control all the territory to which it now lays claim. This is why it launched its own offensive in January. Perhaps part of the reason was to disrupt Ukrainian preparations but the basic reason was to take more territory. This offensive has yet to run its course and there are areas where Russian forces may yet progress, but so far there is little to show for all the effort and costs.

If it fails to prosper then Putin’s minimum aspirations will still be unmet and his forces less able to cope with whatever Ukraine intends to throw at them.

[See also: How long will the war in Ukraine go on for?]

The importance of Bakhmut

Russia’s current offensive essentially took over from where the previous one left off, with the continuity being provided by the battle for Bakhmut. This battle began in May 2022 as part of the Russian effort to take all of the Donbas, the stated war aim from late March. Russian forces had largely completed the takeover of the oblast of Luhansk and were moving on to Donetsk. From late June Russian forces began to face difficulties as the Ukrainians were able to take advantage of deliveries of accurate long-range artillery to target Russian ammunition dumps and command posts. Then they made it known that they intended to take back Kherson oblast, and began operations to do so. This led Russia to move reserves in that direction, which created an opportunity for the Ukrainians to move into the thinly defended Kharkiv oblast. They soon made rapid progress, matched then by some additional movement in Kherson.

What followed was a crisis in Moscow that led to a major strategic reappraisal. By and large this reflected the demands of the hardliners for a more robust approach to the war; the key features were the announced annexations, which expanded rather than contracted the war aims, systematic and persistent attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure, mass mobilisation, which allowed for a rushed move to plug holes in the defences, and a new commander, General Sergei Surovokin, favoured by the hardliners.

This had the effect of slowing down Ukrainian advances, virtually to a standstill, except for when the Russians belatedly evacuated Kherson city last November. At which point Ukraine and its supporters in Nato had to engage in their own reappraisal. Out of this came a commitment to provide Ukraine with the wherewithal to conduct a substantial offensive, including infantry vehicles and tanks, improved air defences and more artillery. The downside was that Ukraine had to move to a defensive mode while it waited for the new equipment to be delivered and its forces trained. Now aware of what was coming, and frustrated that the territory held did not match the annexations, Putin sought a new offensive. Surovokin, who apparently was too defensive-minded and too close to the Defence Ministry’s critics, was removed and the chief of the general staff, Valery Gerasimov, who would always do as he was told, was put in charge of the overall operation.

Bakhmut was unfinished business from the previous offensive. The mercenary Wagner group was hammering away, their numbers boosted by the recruitment of convicts who were to be offered their freedom if they could survive for six months at the front. Using a combination of incessant artillery barrages and mobilised personnel (mobiks) and convicts as expendable manpower Wagner moved forward, first taking Soledar, close to Bakhmut, and then the high ground to its north and south. The imminent seizure of the city was soon being spoken of as a vital next step for Russia. Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister, explained that this was an important hub of the Ukrainian armed forces. “Taking it under control will allow further offensive actions deep into the defence of the armed forces of Ukraine.” Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s first deputy permanent representative to the UN, told Newsweek that without Bakhmut it would be impossible to achieve Putin’s war aims, which required all of Donbas to be taken.

The Ukrainian debate

As the Ukrainian position became more parlous the loss of Bakhmut appeared to be a distinct possibility. There was talk of evacuation before it became too late. On 6 March Zelensky insisted that this would not happen, and, lest there be any doubt, that he had the backing of the country’s senior commanders in this view. Then followed one of the sharpest debates yet seen on the wisdom of Ukrainian strategy, discussed here by Mike Kofman and Rob Lee, recently returned from Bakhmut.

At the heart of the debate was the sort of morbid cost-benefit analysis unavoidably involved in assessments of military strategy at times of war, when every course of action carries risks and the prospect of high losses. Put simply the question was whether the costs, in terms of lives lost and scarce ammunition expended, were worth it when it came to denying Russia a long-sought victory. Zelensky’s critics worried that at best the loss of Bakhmut would be delayed, but with a higher risk of casualties, especially if the Russians were able to encircle the defending forces before they could escape.

Reports from the front told of beleaguered and exhausted defenders, using up ammunition at such a rapid rate that stocks, especially for Soviet-era artillery pieces, were at risk of running dry. “There is a catastrophic shortage of shells,” observed one lieutenant. It was taking five to seven rounds to hit an enemy position. Improvements had been promised, “because everyone who has a mouth makes promises.” Yet still, he insisted, he was not calling for a retreat. They would do their duty to the end, “whatever it is”.

The intensity of the fighting since the summer meant that many of Ukraine’s more experienced soldiers had been killed or wounded. There were reports of new recruits thrown into the battle becoming fearful and demoralised and soon hors de combat. The Washington Post reported in mid-March that: “The quality of Ukraine’s military force, once considered a substantial advantage over Russia, has been degraded by a year of casualties that have taken many of the most experienced fighters off the battlefield, leading some Ukrainian officials to question Kyiv’s readiness to mount a much-anticipated spring offensive.”

These concerns were picked up by journalists and visiting analysts. They were present in Washington, where some officials were frustrated that they were sustaining a military effort that they could not control and direct.

Against the prudent view that evacuation would be the best course, Zelensky was reluctant to cede any more territory to the Russians unless there was no other choice. One issue was the comparable rates of attrition, with suggestions from Nato that for every Ukrainian casualty there were five Russian. But as the Ukrainians were put more onto the back foot this advantage was being reduced. The trade did not look so good when experienced fighters were lost in return for Russian “expendables”. Nor would the evacuation inevitably lead to Russia moving quickly down the roads to Kramatorsk and Slovyansk. The Ukrainians could fall back to lines that would be easier to defend.

In the end Zelensky’s judgement was as much political as military. As with other cities fought over in similar ways the operational consequences of a loss could be argued over but after such a hard fight it would be a political blow. More to the point it would be an even more severe blow for the Russians if they remained unable to advance further into Donetsk.

[See also: Is Putin dead?]

Russia’s offensive stalls

The Ukrainians managed to keep their limited supply routes into Bakhmut open, and mounted some counterattacks to relieve the pressure. Russia’s senior commanders, who had reinforced Wagner to make sure the momentum would not be lost, and certainly its propagandists, appeared confident that the city’s fall was imminent. The readiness of Ukraine to continue the fight may have caught them out.

Away from Bakhmut the Russians have achieved little. There were numerous small-scale probes searching for vulnerabilities in Ukraine’s positions. Some were quite large-scale, of which the most serious was directed against Vuhledar. By the end of January it was apparent that this battle had led to catastrophic losses for Russia’s 155th Naval Infantry Brigade, which kept on following an exposed route to attack Ukrainian positions and suffered the consequences. More attacks followed but the Russian commanders appear largely to have given up on this target.

More recently they had more success with moves against Avdiivka, close to the occupied capital of Donetsk, where they managed to take out Ukrainian air defences and so, unusually for this war, could use aircraft in numbers. Yet they still struggle to put together the combat power to encircle Ukrainian forces. Ukrainians have reported that the Russian push against Avdiivka has thus far been contained.

Most importantly, the Ukrainians are increasingly confident that they can hold Bakhmut. General Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief, considers the position stabilised. The UK Ministry of Defence observed that the Russian offensive had “largely stalled” because of “extreme attrition” of its forces. General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s land forces, observed on 23 March that the Russians were “losing significant forces… and are running out of energy”. Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner group, who has been giving a running commentary on the battle for Bakhmut that his men have been fighting, has warned that they now face a large Ukrainian force (which he put, somewhat implausibly, at 80,000).

While one can never be sure how representative posts on social media are, some from the Russian side are extraordinary. Here is a video of survivors of a unit of 161 people that now has only several dozen men left alive. There are claims of “taxes” to avoid being sent directly into an assault and no chance to heal if wounded. This account of the desperate experiences of mobiks from Omsk in the battles for Vuhledar and Adviivka helps to explain why the Russians are unable to advance very far, with stories of huge losses, soldiers going forward only because they will be killed if they go back, inaccurate artillery fire, and commanders that are either absent or indifferent to the fate of their men.

“There is lawlessness and mayhem on the part of the commanders. And the commanders say openly: ‘You are only meat for us and nothing else. You can forget the promised rewards and payments. You simply do not exist.’ ”

Some units may be performing professionally and with determination. More troops may be found and different tactics adopted. Admiral John Kirby, of the US National Security Council, observed in a press conference that “we have every expectation that [Putin’s] going to plan for other offensive operations as the weather gets better”.

Yet it would be surprising if Russian commanders had not begun to consider whether the over-commitment of their forces in futile offensives was leaving less spare capacity to deal with Ukrainian offensives. Even poor-quality formations, incapable of sustaining offensive operations for long, can hold prepared defensive lines. The prospect of a Ukrainian counteroffensive is starting to prey on the minds of Russia’s commanders. Moscow must also come to terms with the failure, in terms of strategic effects, of their campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. A briefing from Ukrainian intelligence claimed that the Russians were shifting their priorities for drone strikes and rocket attacks away from energy facilities to Ukrainian logistics and equipment concentrations, a move which makes perfect operational sense but brings home the strategic waste entailed in the use of scarce resources in a failed attempt to coerce Kyiv into capitulation.

A Russian reappraisal?

The defining event over the coming weeks is still assumed to be the promised Ukrainian offensive, reflecting the view that only a big shock in battle will persuade Moscow that it needs to reconsider its determination to persevere with this war come what may. Zelensky has been trying to dampen down expectations that it is imminent, observing how much it depends on the pace of weapons deliveries. The experience of the war from both sides shows how difficult offensives can be against prepared defences.

For now Ukrainian forces are still working hard to contain Russia’s offensive. It is not over yet, and while one must always guard against wishful thinking when considering Russia’s setbacks (on this see Sam Greene’s recent substack), it is as well to be prepared for the best case as well as the worst.

Since the invasion Russia has had two major reappraisals of its strategy. The first came at the end of March 2022, after it had lost the battle for Kyiv and had to withdraw its forces away from northern Ukraine. This led to scaled down aspirations, both politically and militarily. The focus would be on the Donbas. Then six months later, after it had made little headway and its forces had been pushed back from Kharkiv oblast and lost ground in Kherson, there was a second reappraisal. This went in the opposite direction, reflecting pressure from hardline nationalist critics. Putin raised the stakes politically by annexing four oblasts, mobilising 300,000 extra troops and beginning the campaign against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure.

Six months on again none of these measures have advanced Russia’s cause. Ukraine has been badly hurt but its relative military position is improving as more Western supplies come in (albeit not as fast as it would like). Putin’s strategic choices have narrowed. Perhaps he will persevere in a Micawberish sort of way, hoping that something will turn up. The arguments against conceding that this venture has been disastrous remain profound and there is no evidence that his position in the Kremlin is under threat. Yet he and his generals must have some misgivings about the consequences of a successful Ukrainian offensive with so little to show for their own. The best bet is that he will insist that his generals continue on their current course, perhaps taking even more risks to get a victory of some sort. I would still, however, not be wholly surprised if at some point he put in an anxious call to his friend Xi Jinping to ask about how he is getting on with his peace initiative.

Lawrence Freedman is a regular contributor to The New Statesman. This piece originally ran on his Substack “Comment is Freed“.

[See also: Ukrainians’ stories of war]

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