GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 681, 25 May 2023

Ukraine: Russia claims victory in Bakhmut
Padmashree Anandhan

In the news
On 20 May, the Wagner Group's head, Yevgeny V Prigozhin, released a video confirming the capture of Bakhmut. He said: "We completely took the whole city, from house to house." Russia's Ministry of Defence confirmed the same, stating: "As a result of offensive actions of the Wagner assault units, with the support of artillery and aviation of the 'Southern' unit, the liberation of the city of Artemovsk was completed."

On 21 May, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denied the claims of capturing Bakhmut. He said: "The fight for the city of Bakhmut is continuing." Meanwhile, Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Malyar, stated: "The enemy failed to surround Bakhmut, and they lost part of the dominant heights around the city. That is, the advance of our troops in the suburbs along the flanks, which is still ongoing, greatly complicates the enemy's presence in Bakhmut."

On 22 May, Prigozhin released another video announcing the group's plan to remove its troops from Bakhmut between 25 May and 1 June. He said that the group had set up "defence lines" in the western outskirts of Bakhmut ahead of the transfer of control to Russia.

On 23 May, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) reported that it is likely for the Wagner group to have made advances in the Bakhmut, however, in the case of Russian forces, the efforts were unsuccessful in the "immediate west of Bakhmut." Ukraine forces are reported to have advanced 200 to 400 metres in the southwest during the past 24 hours.
Issues at large
First, the battle for Bakhmut. Nine months of long battle since August 2022 has incurred massive losses for both Ukraine and Russia. The Wagner Group's ability to push Ukraine in Soledar helped it to continue its offensive in Bakhmut. Ukraine's continued defence forced Wagner Group and Russia to deploy more personnel and weapons. As a result of the losses suffered, Ukraine has requested additional weapons and is determined to achieve victory over Russia. While the Wagner group strategically moved to the outskirts of Bakhmut, encircling north, northeast, and the industrial zone by December 2022. As Ukraine continues to make minor advances in the north and southwest, the Wagner Group claims to have launched the final offensive in the West (Gnezdo, Konstruktor, Domino, and Samolet) and claimed victory.

Second, the strategic significance of Bakhmut. For Ukraine, the city is known for its economic significance, but it is also the key connector to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, which have been subject to attacks since April. It is also a key location due to the highway connecting Lysychansk, which helps replenish stocks. For Russia, capturing Bakhmut means cutting off Ukraine from connecting with Luhansk and preventing it from venturing further into the Donbas region. Since the beginning of the war, Russia's larger aim has been to keep LPR and DPR districts under its control.

Third, the rise and fall of the Wagner Group. The Wagner Group tactically introduced new resources by recruiting prisoners and managed to bargain its ammunition through Russia. It succeeded in blocking Ukraine's supply routes and encircling Ukraine from within in the north, northeast and south directions excluding the west. However, in due time, the Wagner Group weakened due to continued losses, exhaustion of personnel, and weaponry, increasing its dependency on Russian forces. 

Fourth, Ukraine's demand for advanced weapons. It has now shifted to asking modern aviation and air power to strengthen its military ahead of the counter-offensive, indicating its shortcomings in the battles of Bakhmut and Soledar. The delay in the air defence and advanced weapon systems delivery from the West has not only resulted in exhausting its military resources but has created a difficult situation for Ukraine's counter-offensive.

In perspective
First, the battle may not have favoured Ukraine due to the limited weapons and continued offensives of the Wagner Group. In line with the Western reports, if the city has fallen in control of Russia upon the exit of Wagner troops, Russia will now have to concentrate its forces to maintain control. For Ukraine, this will be the right time to re-think its strategy if it still wants to hold its remaining forces in Bakhmut or withdraw to concentrate in other significant areas such as Sloviansk and Kramatorsk.  

Second, mixed results for Russia. Wagner's exhaustion will be a setback for Russia in launching future offensives. However, gaining ground in Bakhmut would add an advantage. Being one of the largest areas captured since 2022, Russia has prevented Ukraine from intercepting into the Donbas region. Still, the threat is not far, with Ukraine preparing for its spring counter-offensive. With less possibility for new recruitment for Russia, it can be expected to use its other units to launch an offensive towards the West of Ukraine.

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