The Ukrainian positions around the city of Bakhmut are sometimes heavily attacked by Russian forces, some are threatened with encirclement. Despite this, the invaders are making little progress. There are mutliple reasons for this.
By Vivian Micks and Martin Morcinek
This article first appeared on ntv.de
If you look at the movements along the front line in eastern Ukraine, Bakhmut has been eye-catching for weeks. The city in Donetsk Oblast, which originally had around 75,000 inhabitants, has become synonymous with the hell of war. Bloody battles claim thousands of lives. In addition, Russian forces are threatening to encircle Ukrainian soldiers from the north, east and south, leaving them with only one road west to retreat. Experts are therefore criticizing the military leadership and calling for Ukraine’s withdrawal from Bakhmut.
Russian offensive around Bachmut: Little progress despite many attacks
But Bakhmut is not the only hotly contested place in Ukraine. Taking a second look at the front line, other sections catch the eye where Russian troops are attacking Ukrainian positions with particular vigour. Movements from the Russian side can be observed above all in the towns of Wuhledar, Marjinka, Avdiivka and Bilohorivka. But despite many attacks, the Russians are making little progress, says military expert Gustav Gressel ntv.de. An overview.
After weeks of fierce fighting, Russian forces and Wagner units are making small but steady gains there. “The Russians sense their most promising direction of attack there, because there is a chance of cutting off supplies and encircling Ukrainian units,” says Gustav Gressel from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).
With the loss of Ukrainian territory – even if it’s only a few kilometers per week – their positions are said to be weaker. From a military point of view, holding the city makes little sense. However, a retreat to the good second lines northwest of Bakhmut has so far been forbidden by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, also because of the strong symbolic power.
Overall, however, the Russian attacks have decreased in the past few days, writes the ISW in its latest situation report. The attacks would have subsided accordingly. According to Wagner units, there is a lack of ammunition to continue the massive attacks.
The front section runs along the town of Wuhledar around 150 kilometers southwest of Bachmut. According to the US think tank ISW last week, Russia is preparing to resume the military offensive. According to Gressel, Russian units have been able to report successes in the last four weeks, especially to the west and east of the city. According to several experts, however, the offensive was stopped again.
Supply in particular poses problems for Russia
Previously, all Russian offensives in front of the southern Ukrainian city had failed: In February, a Russian elite unit with marines suffered considerable losses when they tried to take the area around Wuhledar in a three-week offensive. The ISW writes that since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began a year ago, the troops there have been re-formed at least seven times.
In addition, persistent problems in obtaining supplies – both troops and ammunition – are preventing Russian forces from actually advancing. Not least because most of the armed forces and ammunition are needed in Bakhmut. From the Ukrainian point of view, that is exactly the military reason why Bakhmut should not be given up: the fighting there ties up Russian soldiers who are missing elsewhere.
Marjinka is located almost 80 kilometers south-west along the front from Bakhmut. The town, which once had almost 10,000 inhabitants, has been close to the front since the beginning of the Russian invasion. The old contact line of the Minsk Agreement between free Ukraine and the “People’s Republic” claimed by Russia runs between Marjinka and the Donbass metropolis Donetsk: Here the Ukrainians defend themselves in well-developed positions.
There, too, Russian troops have not been able to make any major advances in their attacks in recent weeks. In general, Russians were only able to advance 200 meters in the area in one year. This is little consolation for the remaining residents: the constant shelling has turned the once tranquil suburb of Marjinka into a wasteland of rubble.
First partial successes for Russia near Donetsk
Similar to Bakhmut, the course of the front in front of Avdiivka, just a few kilometers north of Donetsk, could indicate an encirclement of Ukrainian soldiers. Several sources indicate Russian axes of attack from the north, east and west of the city. According to Gressel, the Russians actually achieved a first partial success there. A few hours ago, a village in the north-west of Avdiivka could be taken. However, this does not lead to an encirclement. That looks more dangerous on the map than it is, says Gressel. For one thing, despite the ongoing attacks, the Russians made little progress for weeks. On the other hand, the arc to encircle the city is quite wide. “About twice as wide as the encirclement around Bakhmut.” Even if the Russian troops were lucky there, the “cauldron” would be too big to close quickly. “Even if the Russians break through, they can’t cover that many kilometers to quickly separate the city,” said Gressel.
According to consistent reports, more extensive battles are also taking place on a section of the front about 50 kilometers north of Bakhmut. Russian offensive operations have been underway from the city of Kreminna in the Luhansk region for weeks. With various advances, army units are attempting to advance westward towards Lyman over largely open terrain. So far, however, the Ukrainians have been able to repel all attacks before the settlement of Torske.
How the fronts in Ukraine have shifted in a year of war
There was also intense fighting in the extensive spruce and pine forests southwest of Kreminna. On the southern bank of the river, the Ukrainians are holding an exposed outpost in the immediate vicinity of the village of Bilohorivka in the front arc between the Siverskyj Donets river and the Russian positions in front of Lysychansk. However, despite many attacks in the last four weeks, the Russian army does not seem to be achieving any success.
Already the battles are a war of attrition
Gressel sees several reasons for the lack of progress by the Russian forces. On the one hand it is due to good defence. “The longer the Ukrainians hold an area, the better their positions are.” Ukrainian armed forces are particularly well positioned in areas where the front line used to run to the separatist areas, such as near Avdiivka or Marjinka.
Secondly, according to Gressel, the attacks failed due to the fragmentation of the Russian troops. “Armed forces and especially ammunition are divided into seven directions.” In each case too little to achieve decisive success. “If the Russians had concentrated on one or two areas, they would probably have achieved greater success,” the military expert suspects. Because the coordination of massive attacks is difficult. “And after so many Russian officers have died, maybe too difficult,” said Gressel.
The Ukrainian army must try to wear down the Russian army as much as possible, concludes Gressel. “Later in the spring there will be gaps that can be used for counterattacks.” Until then, the Ukrainian troops have no choice but to keep their own forces as intact as possible. Even if Ukraine has to give up Bakhmut, a successful counter-offensive could free up more space than the Russians are now capturing.