Bakhmut’s troubles in Russia show Putin ‘overestimated’ his forces: Commander

Russia’s advance on the eastern city of Bakhmut shows Moscow “overestimated” the strength of its forces, a Ukrainian commander suggested, as both sides vie for a victory to position themselves for major new offensives in 2023 that hopefully end the conflict.

Roman Kostenko – one of the famous “cyborg” ukrainian troops who defended Donetsk airport in 2014, a veteran of years’ fighting against Russian-led forces in Donbas and now a member of Ukraine’s parliament, said news week from near the southern front around his hometown of Kherson that the area around Bakhmut “is where the hottest action is happening right now.”

For months, Russian troops led by Wagner Group Mercenaries they have been trying to seize Bakhmut, a transportation hub near the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk from which Moscow controls puppet republics in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

The fierce fighting has nearly destroyed Bakhmut and inflicted many casualties on both sides, although Ukrainian reports state that the Moscow troops have suffered more than the defenders.

Ukrainian GRAD MLRS fires at Russian positions
Above, a BM-21 ‘Grad’ multiple rocket launcher fires at Russian frontline positions near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, on November 27, 2022. Ukrainian commander Roman Kostenko told Newsweek that Bakhmut is where “all the hottest action is happening at the moment” in the war.

“Despite all the difficulties, we are sticking with it,” said Kostenko, who commands a special forces unit. “This showdown over Bakhmut is really revealing, because it shows how the Russians overestimated their own strength. The picture of an unstoppable force [President Vladimir Putin] tried to project at the start of the invasion has been overshadowed by the reality of a weak and unmotivated army”.

“We see this in Bakhmut, where the Russians throw everything at us, they say they have a 9:1 advantage over our forces and yet they haven’t been able to take it,” he said.

Military and Political Award

Bakhmut was a significant strategic target. The city with a population of about 73,000 before Russia’s latest invasion lies just west of the M03 highway leading to the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two main targets for past and future Russian offensives. Bakhmut railways connect the city with the city of Lugansk and the Russian border.

Taking over the city and the surrounding area, said Gustav Gressel, a senior fellow for politics at the European Council on Foreign Relations. news weekit would also put a welcome distance between Ukrainian troops and the key occupied city of Donetsk.

“From the Russian point of view, it makes sense to push there,” Gressel said. “Donetsk is the metropolis of their occupation regime, the Donetsk People’s Republic is the only functioning occupation administration, and they use their staff to run the occupation authorities in the other provinces. They want to get Ukrainians away from that; no doubt makes sense from his general political point of view.

Kostenko said that Bakhmut “does not have major strategic importance, and its operational importance is also limited”, although he acknowledged that its position at the entrance to the Bakhmut-Konstantinovka highway “could hypothetically give them some advantage”.

But, he added, “it won’t be a game changer in this conflict, even if they could accept it.”

“As long as we can, we want to hold on to the city. Because leaving her would imply readjusting our defensive lines, which would take a little time, ”he said.

The battle for Bakhmut looks mainly political for Moscow. Amid the disappointing and sometimes humiliating performance of the Russian regular forces, the Wagner Group mercenary team has taken it upon themselves to deliver Bakhmut to the Kremlin.

Ukrainian soldier injured by mine near Bakhmut
Military medics work on a member of the Ukrainian army suffering from head and leg injuries caused by a mine at a frontline field hospital near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on December 4, 2022. The standoff for Bakhmut “shows how the Russians overestimated their own strength”. Roman Kostenko told Newsweek.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin— known as “Putin’s chef” because of the fortune he made through state catering contracts — is among the Kremlin “siloviki” who embraced the invasion of Ukraine for their own political interests.

Prigozhin previously evaded public recognition of his ties to Wagner. Now, he has admitted leadership of the mercenary group and praised the potential of its members, which now include many convicts. Bakhmut is supposed to be a demonstration that proves that Wagner can do what regular armed forces cannot.

“The Wagner Group, the ex-convicts, it’s not just Putin, but Prigozhin’s name is on the line now,” Kostenko said. “They can’t go back after having injected so many resources into this offensive. And that comes at a cost to other parts of the front line where they don’t have enough resources.”

buried by bodies

Despite all of Wagner’s propaganda, the offensive on Bakhmut has followed the pattern russian playbook– Massive artillery and airstrikes destroying the objective followed by infantry assault teams supported by armor. The approach is slow, expensive and devastating.

“There is barely any Bakhmut left, the enemy has basically razed the city with artillery and airstrikes,” Kostenko said. “They are still sending more men, effectively burying the city with the bodies of his own soldiers”.

Russian forces attempted to win the war in a matter of days with an early “thunder run” at Kyiv, but the mobile columns were quickly bogged down and destroyed due to very limited logistical capabilities. Subsequent Russian operations have been characterized by slow, artillery-fueled attrition against enemy positions and settlements.

Heavy casualties from the spring fighting mean Russia is limited in the operations it can launch.

Ukrainian medics under fire near Bakhmut Donetsk
Military medics wait in a bomb shelter during heavy shelling and airstrikes by Russian forces near their position at a frontline field hospital on the outskirts of Bakhmut, Ukraine, on December 5, 2022. ‘There is barely Bakhmut, the enemy has basically leveled the city with artillery.” and airstrikes,” Kostenko told Newsweek.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

“They are already short of officers and commanders, so they have to stick to very simple battle plans,” Gressel explained. “I think that will be something we will see as well if offensives start on other parts of the front; it will happen in a very similar way.”

“They are in dire need of officers,” Gressel said. “It’s shortened officer training to bring cadets to troops to mobilized troops. But, of course, you can’t expect much from very hastily trained officers.”

Although the momentum seems to be with the Ukrainians after two successful counter-offensive impulses in the fall, Russia is still mobilizing new troops. Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny said The Economist that Moscow is preparing 200,000 new soldiers, in the hope that a offensive 2023 it could even take Kyiv.

Russian forces are training in Belarus, and Ukrainian leaders warn that Minsk forces could join their Russian allies in a new push south and west toward nato borders. Such a plan would be very risky and likely costly for both Putin and President Alexander Lukashenko.

“Where are they going to attack with the remaining 200,000 guys still in training, that’s the million dollar question,” Gressel said. “There is a lot of preparation on the northern border, facing Kharkiv Oblast. I have seen Ukrainian news of many saboteurs and reconnaissance teams trying to infiltrate that part of the border.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the next offensive that the Russians are planning is going to be an offensive in the north; they reopen Sumy Oblast, Kharkiv Oblast and try to push down from the north,” Gressel said, noting that an attack in this area would have the benefit of short supply lines back across the border to Russia.

“The Russian military buildup is far from complete and they are still in training,” Gressel added. “Of course we can’t be sure, but that would be my assumption.”

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