Analysis & Comment

The Biggest Battle in Ukraine

Early this month, the head of NATO warned that the fierce battle over the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut could end with a Russian victory within days. Three weeks later, his prediction has yet to come true. Ukraine and Russia are still fighting for control of the city.

The stalemate has come at great cost for both sides, particularly Russia. Ukrainian officials have estimated that for every one of their soldiers lost, Russia has lost seven. Russia tried to replenish its ranks by letting prisoners fight, but it has nearly exhausted the supply of those recruits as well.

The battle has also taken a heavy toll on munitions, vehicles and other military equipment — and has also taken a lot of time. The first time this newsletter mentioned Bakhmut was in July, when Russia increased its attacks near the city.

Russia could still capture Bakhmut, and some analysts expect it to do so. But for now, the battle over the city has become yet another example of Ukraine defying the odds and of Russia performing worse than many experts expected. Today’s newsletter will explain why both sides have put so much into Bakhmut — and why it could have important consequences for the broader war.

Wanting a win

Bakhmut has little strategic value, U.S. officials say. The city is in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s primary target in the war, but there is nothing uniquely valuable about the city for the war effort.

So why has Russia thrown so much into taking it? Because Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, is desperate for a win — any win. The war has not gone as well for Russia as most people expected. In the past several months, Russia has lost territory, pulling back in both the northeastern and southern fronts. The original goal — to take Kyiv and topple the Ukrainian government — now seems beyond reach.

If Russia can take Bakhmut now, Putin can argue to the Russian people, to his allies in China and Iran and to Western supporters of Ukraine that Russia is making gains and has momentum. A win could boost morale among Russian forces and hurt international support for Ukraine. With the spring expected to bring better weather for renewed offenses, that boost to Russia could help its military get back on track in the war.

Conversely, the perception that a victory in Bakhmut could raise Russian morale and sink Ukrainian hopes has also turned the city into a symbol for Ukraine. Its president, Volodymyr Zelensky, has said that a Russian seizure of Bakhmut would let Putin argue that he has the advantage. “If he will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” Zelensky said this week.

But even if Russia takes Bakhmut, the win might amount to little gain at great cost. Russia will have lost so many troops and so much equipment trying to take a city of scant strategic value that it may have been better off never mounting an offensive.

And a Russian failure to take Bakhmut altogether would be an astonishing defeat. After all, if Russia can’t capture the city even with the investment of so many resources, how can it expect to win the broader war?

“Bakhmut will always be a Pyrrhic victory for Russia. It gets them nothing,” said my colleague Michael Schwirtz, who has covered the war from Ukraine. “But if Ukraine manages to push them back, it will be a disaster.”

What comes next

The battle could also have negative consequences for Ukraine. Its military has put resources toward the fight there that could have gone elsewhere, particularly to an offensive this spring. Ukraine wants to not only retake lost land through a renewed offensive but also split Russian forces in the east from those in the south.

“If a Ukrainian offensive in the weeks ahead comes close but falls short, there will be recriminations about whether such an effort could have been more successful if resources had not been diverted to Bakhmut,” said my colleague Julian Barnes, who covers national security.

But it’s also possible that the battle for Bakhmut could help Ukraine’s next offensive, by having forced Russia to spend so many resources on the city. How the fighting in Bakhmut will be judged, then, depends on what happens next and how the consequences play out on the rest of the battlefield.

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Kitty Bennett, Matthew Cullen, Lauren Hard, Lauren Jackson, Claire Moses, Ian Prasad Philbrick, Tom Wright-Piersanti and Ashley Wu contributed to The Morning. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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