In Bakhmut Russian forces continue to press Ukrainian lines and the situation remains very difficult, despite that Ukrainian command has officially declared that the defence of the city will continue.[i] Several western experts have doubted the importance of Bakhmut, stating that the city has little to no strategic value, while at the same time draining Ukrainian forces.[ii] Commander of Ukraine’s Ground Forces, Col. General Oleksandr Syrskyi stated that the importance of Bakhmut is increasing as each day the city holds it allows Ukraine to prepare reserves and prepare for future offensive operations while at the same time bleeding Russian forces.[iii] However, it seems that Russia also recognises the strategic value of the city, with Russian Defence Minister Shoigu stating that capturing of Bakhmut will allow for a wider offensive against Ukraine.[iv] The battle for Bakhmut is gaining momentum, with both sides committing more and more soldiers to the fight with both sides trying to break their opponents. It is very possible that the Battle for Bakhmut will decide fate of the entire front in Donbass.
This week Ukrainian forces abandoned all defensive positions in eastern Bakhmut, the defence line is now based on the Bakhmutka river that cuts through the centre of the city. The river forms a major obstacle to the Russian advance, especially due to the fact that the majority of the bridges crossing the river have been destroyed by withdrawing Ukrainian forces – Russian troops have reportedly managed to secure one of the bridges intact. This development will probably lower the intensity of the fighting within the centre of the city, with much more pressure being put on the northern and southern sectors. The south and south-west frontline is currently heavily contested. Russians continue to assault Ukrainian positions in the south of the city, especially around the Mariupol Cemetery area, and are slowly gaining ground. Further to the west Ukrainian forces have launched several attacks along the T0504 highway, between Bakhmut and Chasiv Yar, and have successfully forced Russian forces back at least several hundred metres. This was done to stabilise the critical state of Ukrainian ground lines of communication in and out of Bakhmut. Similar counter attacks have been conducted near Khromove to secure the primary line of communication out of Bakhmut – the O0506 road. This path is still under heavy Russian fire but is apparently still passable. Last week a missile destroyed a key bridge that made the road extremely hard to traverse, however Ukrainians managed to conduct makeshift repairs that made it traversable once more. Russian activity escalates further north where Moscow troops attempt to pierce and extend Ukrainian defensive lines. Several assaults have been reported along the E-40/M-03 highway, with several smaller villages coming into Russian control. These assaults are conducted by a combination of Wagner and elite VDV troops, with the VDV responsible for direct attacks on Ukrainian weak points, though which massed Wagner troops can then push. This development also opened the possibility of Russian assault on the village of Hryhorivka and a further effort to put pressure on the key town of Chasiv Yar from the north, which in turn would further destabilise Ukrainian defensive efforts in Bakhmut.
Russian forces continue offensive operations north of Bakhmut in the Siversk-Kreminna-Kupyansk line. Russian assaults have been probing the lines and slowly pushing towards Torske and Kirovsk from Kreminna. The two towns act as the final line of defence standing between the vital city of Lyman which serves as a logistics hub for Ukrainian forces, especially those in the Siversk region, due to extensive rail network and road junctions. As reported earlier the Russian 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division is amassing in this region, waiting for an opportune moment to strike – this translates to around 20,000 soldiers. Furthermore, Russian forces have struck north from Bakhmut, along the T0513 highway to Siversk. This again could be an effort to extend Ukrainian defensive lines and stretch the defenders in the hope of achieving breakthroughs in the Bakhmut area itself. However, this could also be the beginning of Russian offensive operations in the Siversk region, attacking both from the south (Bakhmut) and north (Kremina-Torske line). This would somewhat explain the inactivity of the 2nd Guards Motor Rifle Division, which is waiting for the perfect conditions to go on the offensive in the region.
Other areas of the frontline have not experienced any noteworthy changes or events. In the south Russians continue offensive operations in the Vuhledar – Donetsk city area without significant gains. In the far north Russian forces slowly creep towards the city of Kupyansk, Ukrainian authorities announced partial evacuation of the citizens.
Deteriorating situation of Ukrainian soldiers
A recent report by the Kyiv Independent has also painted a very vivid picture of the dire situation of Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut. The report was based on a series of interviews with Ukrainian soldiers in the town of Kostyantynivka, one of the critical concentration hubs of Ukrainian forces going in and out of Bakhmut.[v] Many of the soldiers shared their thoughts on the intensity and ferocity of Russian assaults. According to them the tactics of Russian forces have evolved and have become more dangerous. Wagner forces now assault their positions supported by elite VDV troops, covered by artillery fire and armoured vehicles. The situation is worse still, as apparently frontline forces are bereft of proper support. According to the interviewed soldiers, friendly armoured vehicles and tanks are a rare sight, with mechanised detachments only being mechanised on paper.[vi] This can be further proved by the frequent pleas for more armoured infantry vehicles to be sent to Ukraine, notably by Minister Reznikov. The soldiers further claim that Ukrainian artillery is unreliable in providing aid, with fire support delayed by several hours or never coming. This could be somewhat explained by the statements of a mortarman of the 3017th unit of Ukraine’s National Guard claiming that his unit also gets 10 rounds a day.[vii] Such claims can be further proven by Minister Reznikov’s recent pleas for more artillery ammunition to be sent to Ukraine. It seems that anti-armour munitions are also in short supply, with many soldiers complaining of not being able to fight back against Russian armoured vehicles. One soldier talked about a single BTR (depending on the variant either an APC or IFV) terrorising his troops for a month, with several positions lost to its assaults. The inability to respond to this threat, however, shows not only lack of munitions but issues with communication, with command not responding to such reported threats. What is however most dire in Kyiv Independent’s report is the news of improperly sent soldiers being sent to the frontlines in and around Bakhmut. According to multiple accounts many soldiers are sent to Bakhmut with only two weeks’ worth of training, whereas two months is considered a minimum.[viii] In some cases, positions are lost due to the inexperience of troops manning them. These reports and accounts also fit with the news of increasing Ukrainian casualties in the Bakhmut area, with estimates of between 100 – 200 being lost daily.[ix] While Russian forces might still lose more soldiers than Ukraine, such casualties are not sustainable for Ukraine, and especially the morale of its soldiers. The entire report shows a very grim reality of Ukrainian soldiers defending Bakhmut, if it continues Ukraine might soon be forced to withdraw from the city.
Western aid to Ukraine
This week marks a significant step up in Western military aid to Ukraine. First of all on 7 and 8 March the Defence Ministers from the European Union and Ukraine met during a summit in Stockholm. The meeting decided on approval for further aid to Ukraine, pledging a further 2 billion Euro to the cause.[x] At the same time EU officials also decided to significantly boost artillery shells and ammunition production to support the Ukrainian war effort. This will hopefully, at least partially, restock Ukrainian ammunition supplies that have been reported to be critically low in recent days. The EU has also stated that it plans to train 30,000 Ukrainian troops through its training mission by the end of the year.
Going further, the UK decided to double the amount of tanks it will send to Ukraine, from 14 to 28, which translates to 2 full tank companies.[xi] The first batch of 14 Challenger 2 tanks is scheduled to arrive by the end of March. Germany has also announced that 18 German and 3 Portuguese Leopard 2A6 will arrive in Ukraine by the end of March.[xii] These will join the 14 Polish Leopard A4s already in Ukraine, as Defence Minister Błaszczak confirmed the completion of the delivery this week.[xiii] A further 4 Canadian Leopard 2s are also meant to be sent into Ukraine soon. This will bring the total number of Western made tanks in Ukraine to 53 by the end of March, just short of a battalion.
The Polish Defence Minister has also stated this week that US made Abrams tanks for the Polish Armed Forces will begin arriving in Poland in April.[xiv] While not part of direct aid to Ukraine, this could allow Poland to transfer more of its Soviet made T-72 and domestically upgraded PT-91 tanks to Ukraine, significantly boosting the capability of Ukrainian armoured forces. Minister Błaszcak also stated that Poland is ready and willing to serve as a maintenance hub for western equipment used by the Ukrainian armed forces, tanks like the Leopard or Abrams especially. This would offset the issues of supplying spare parts and lack of specialised equipment needed to repair western gear. Polish President Andrzej Duda and Slovakia’s Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad have also stated this week that the two countries are ready to send its MiG-29 aircraft.[xv] This would be a significant boost to Ukraine’s air force as it struggles against Russian air threats. The US has also recently begun tests to determine whether Soviet made aircraft.[xvi] This could mean that Ukraine might soon receive aid in the form of Soviet jets armed with western weapons. In all, this week has been a further commitment of the Western nations to supporting Ukraine in their struggle against the Russian invasion.
Russian soldiers protest
Over the past several weeks a number of videos surfaced where Russian soldiers argued and protested against mistreatment on the frontlines. In each of these videos a group of men all masked have talked about the wrongdoings against. This included, but was not limited to, being sent to the frontlines while they were supposed to man 2nd or 3rd lines of defence, being sent into assaults without proper gear or support from artillery and armoured vehicles, general mistreatment at the hands of the soldiers and officers of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics.[xvii] Each of the videos focused on similar, or in some cases the same, issues and ended the video by pleading Putin to help them. The soldiers oftentimes stated that they want to fight, but that they want to do it properly, with good gear and good commanders. If true, these videos show some levels of dissent among Russian troops, which could increase as the war drags on and potentially cripple the capabilities of the Russian Armed Forces. On the other hand, however the striking similarity between the videos, in terms of content as well as the way that they have been prepared could suggest this to be a Russian information campaign aimed to sow disinformation among Ukrainian and Western experts. Interesting however, is this week’s video showing Russian forces protesting against fighting has surfaced. In the video soldiers mobilised from Kaliningrad argue with their commanding officer about being sent to the frontlines, and that they refuse to fight on the frontlines.[xviii] The soldiers also state that they would rather go to prison for refusing to obey orders than assault Ukrainian positions and die for nothing. This video is also different in format than the previous one, recorded by handheld device, with low video quality (potentially an illegally smuggled phone). The discussion is also very heated, rather than a calm, purposeful presentation visible in the other videos. It is thus possible that some Russian units are plagued by dissent and refusal from its soldiers.
This week marks the continuation of the apocalyptic battle for Bakhmut, with both sides fighting ferociously for every inch of ground. New reports from the front paint a dire picture, with Ukrainian troops fighting to match the overwhelming Russian assault, with limited gear, ammunition shortages, and struggling new recruits. However, there is hope as new western equipment is pledged and sent to Ukraine and new troops finish training, it is possible for Ukrainian forces to break the Russian onslaught. What will be vital in the coming weeks is the resolve of Ukrainian troops to hold the line and the continued will of the western nations to provide aid. The west should be prepared to increase further its support to Ukraine, as the late spring might be the time for the meticulously prepared western equipped Ukrainian troops to surge forwards. Poland, in particular, should not be afraid to commit resources to facilitate the maintenance of Ukrainian gear and the steady flow of western supplies. The battle for Bakhmut will most probably determine the fate of front in Donbass, and it requires the full undisputed commitment of both Ukraine and the West to be won.
Author: Sebastian Czub, Analyst, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations
[i] Lorenzo Tondo, “Ukrainian leaders agree to continue Bakhmut defence as casualties mount”, The Guardian, March 7, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/06/ukraine-continues-to-defend-bakhmut.
[ii] The Kyiv Independent news desk, ”Military: Importance of holding Bakhmut ‘only increasing’“, The Kyiv Independent, March 9, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/news-feed/military-importance-of-holding-bakhmut-is-only-increasing.
[iii] The Kyiv Independent news desk, ”Military: Importance of holding Bakhmut ‘only increasing’“, The Kyiv Independent, March 9, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/news-feed/military-importance-of-holding-bakhmut-is-only-increasing.
[iv] Jake Cordell, “Russia’s Shoigu says capturing Ukraine’s Bakhmut will allow more offensives”, Reuters, March 7, 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/russias-shoigu-capture-bakhmut-will-allow-further-offensives-ukraine-2023-03-07/.
[v] Igor Kossov, “Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut: ‘Our troops are not being protected’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 5, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/ukrainian-soldiers-in-bakhmut-our-troops-are-not-being-protected.
[vi] Igor Kossov, “Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut: ‘Our troops are not being protected’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 5, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/ukrainian-soldiers-in-bakhmut-our-troops-are-not-being-protected.
[vii] Igor Kossov, “Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut: ‘Our troops are not being protected’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 5, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/ukrainian-soldiers-in-bakhmut-our-troops-are-not-being-protected.
[viii] Igor Kossov, “Ukrainian soldiers in Bakhmut: ‘Our troops are not being protected’”, The Kyiv Independent, March 5, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/national/ukrainian-soldiers-in-bakhmut-our-troops-are-not-being-protected.
[ix] Isobel Koshiw and Pjotr Sauer, “Ukrainian forces still trying to hold Bakhmut despite heavy casualties“, The Guardian, March 9, 2023, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/09/ukraine-bakhmut-heavy-casualties-russia-war.
[x] Alice Tidey, “EU defence ministers mull €2 billion plan to boost ammunition deliveries to Ukraine”, EuroNews, March 8, 2023, https://www.euronews.com/my-europe/2023/03/08/eu-defence-ministers-discuss-joint-procurement-for-ammunition-to-replenish-depleted-stocks.
[xi] David Axe, “Are More Ex-British Challenger 2 Tanks Bound For Ukraine?”, Forbes, March 4, 2023, https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidaxe/2023/03/04/more-ex-british-challenger-2-tanks-are-bound-for-ukraine-as-london-doubles-its-pledge/?sh=4994b297232b.
[xii] Alyssa Mcmurtry, “Portuguese Leopard tanks in Germany to be delivered to Ukraine this month”, Anadolu Agency, March 8, 2023, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/turkiye/portuguese-leopard-tanks-in-germany-to-be-delivered-to-ukraine-this-month/2840209.
[xiii] Mikołaj Małecki, “Minister Błaszczak: przekazaliśmy Ukrainie kolejnych 10 Leopardów”, PAP, March 9, 2023, https://www.pap.pl/aktualnosci/news%2C1546414%2Cminister-blaszczak-przekazalismy-ukrainie-kolejnych-10-leopardow.html.
[xiv] PAP, “First US Abrams tanks to arrive in Poland in April”, PAP, March 8, 2023, https://www.pap.pl/en/news/news%2C1545965%2Cfirst-us-abrams-tanks-arrive-poland-april-mod.html.
[xv] TVP World, “Poland ready to give MiG-29s to Ukraine: Polish president on CNN”, TVP World, March 8, 2023, https://tvpworld.com/68387096/poland-ready-to-give-mig29s-to-ukraine-polish-president-on-cnn. ; The Kyiv Independent news desk, ” Slovakia and Poland ‘ready’ to send MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine”, The Kyiv Independent, March 9, 2023, https://kyivindependent.com/news-feed/slovakia-and-poland-ready-to-send-mi-g-29-fighter-jets-to-ukraine.
[xvi] Lara Seligman, “U.S. military eyes mounting Western air-to-air missiles on Ukrainian MiGs”, Politico, March 7, 2023, https://www.politico.com/news/2023/03/07/u-s-military-air-to-air-missiles-ukrainian-migs-00085877.
[xvii] Dmitri, Twitter, March 6, 2023, https://twitter.com/wartranslated/status/1632697160029421568?cxt=HHwWgIC-ldXawKgtAAAA
[xviii] Dmitri, Twitter, March 8, 2023, https://twitter.com/wartranslated/status/1633518847671123968?cxt=HHwWgIC-lZevtqstAAAA.