Much of the small city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine lies in ruins after months of bloody trench warfare.
Tens of thousands are dead, and any resident who had the ability to flee did so.
Russian invaders have surrounded the city on three sides, and Western officials have urged Ukrainian defenders — so far without success — to fall back to more easily defendable lines.
Kyiv has no plans to pull out of Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials say it’s not just a matter of what the loss would mean for the public’s morale. The city’s defense, they say, is linked to a planned spring offensive that could commence within weeks.
Ukrainian forces are hoping to build on the spectacular successes of a fall sortie that broke through a weak link in Russian lines and pushed the invading forces out of almost all of the Kharkiv Oblast in the east.
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After retaking the city of Lyman in Donetsk Oblast in October, Ukrainian forces met tougher Russian resistance and a winter counterattack by Russian troops and mercenaries centered on Bakhmut.
Both sides have been bloodied by the fighting for Bakhmut, but Ukrainian commanders say the planning for a renewed offensive to reclaim land in the Donbas has not been affected.
Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground troops, said soldiers are battling Russians in the east so Kyiv can consolidate enough troops and weapons for what’s coming.
“It was necessary to buy time to accumulate reserves and start a counteroffensive, which is not far off,” the general told Ukrainian reporters in Kyiv on March 11.
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The stakes — political and military — could not be higher.
Despite a disastrous first year of fighting, Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be betting that his smaller adversary cannot long sustain a war of attrition and that popular support in the U.S. and Europe will inevitably weaken if the fighting produces a stalemate.
The government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is desperate to revive the momentum and morale-lifting success of the fall’s fighting, even as Russia sends new troops to the battlefield with months of opportunity to shore up its defensive lines.
“It’s easier to train someone to stand in a trench and defend and shoot someone coming at them, but it’s much more difficult to train them to do offensive operations,” Rob Lee, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, recently told The Kyiv Independent news website.
“It takes a lot more courage and unit cohesion, [and] it takes better leadership and command and control,” he said.
Although Ukrainian forces surprised the Russians in the fall, the battle is much less of a guessing game now. Almost telegraphing its intentions, the Zelenskyy government has even commissioned an “Offensive Guard,” made up of eight assault brigades, to spearhead the fight.
Military analysts and Western military officials say Ukrainian commanders, now fortified with dozens of new NATO-supplied tanks and with Soviet-era jet fighters on the way, have effectively two options if they seek to push back Russian and separatist forces: Push south across the Dnieper River toward Crimea, which Russia has held and militarized since it seized the peninsula in 2014, or advance more to the east and then south to cut off Russia’s coveted “land bridge” along the Black Sea coast linking Crimea to Russia proper.
John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia program at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, agreed that a Ukrainian counteroffensive is likely imminent.
Mr. Hardie said Ukraine’s advance would likely focus south toward the city of Melitopol in the Zaporizhzhya region or Mariupol in the Donetsk Oblast on the northern coast of the Sea of Azov.
“But we don’t really know,” he said, adding that Ukraine’s southern region is economically and strategically crucial to Kyiv.
The Pentagon hosted Ukrainian generals early this month at the U.S. military base in Wiesbaden, Germany, for several days of “tabletop” exercises to game-plan the spring offensive, although U.S. officials say publicly that Kyiv is calling the shots on war strategy.
“No one is sitting there telling the Ukrainians, ‘Go left or go right or do this or do that.’ That is not the job of the international community,” said Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “All we’re doing is setting up the framework and the mechanics to allow the Ukrainians to self-learn, to learn against a situation, or various scenarios.”
Russian military commanders have likely begun rationing artillery ammunition because of shortages in recent weeks along several parts of the front line. That has probably been a key reason why no Russian combat formation has been able to generate significant offensive action against Ukraine, British military officials said.
“Russia has almost certainly already resorted to issuing old munitions stock which was previously categorized as unfit to use,” British intelligence officials said last week in an assessment of the battlefield.
In need of supplies
A Ukrainian offensive probably would not begin until after Kyiv receives more military firepower promised by the U.S. and other NATO countries. Many predict an early May kickoff. The Defense Department said the U.S. is committed to providing Ukraine with sufficient firepower to fight the Russians.
“We’re continuing to do everything we can to ensure we’re meeting Ukraine’s needs,” Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday. “That will continue to be our focus. There is still a tough fight ahead, particularly as we go into the spring and summer.”
Mr. Hardie said Ukraine could conceivably launch an attack with whatever weapons it has on hand.
“So far in this war, Ukraine has really not conducted successful large-scale maneuver operations except where Russian forces were very thin,” he said. “But I’ve learned throughout this war not to bet against the Ukrainians. They’ve consistently proven pessimists wrong.”
Some Russian military analysts said Ukrainian forces could face minimal resistance in a drive toward the south, unlike other areas of the front line. Meanwhile, a member of Russia’s parliament, the State Duma, called on military officials to develop anti-drone warfare capabilities to defend critical ground lines of communication connecting occupied Crimea with mainland Russia, according to the Institute for the Study of War think tank.
Retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, a former commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the priority is not only helping Ukraine prepare for offensive operations but also blunting Russia’s ability to launch its own drive further into Ukraine. He estimated that Kyiv could be ready to move out by May or early June and “hopefully” take the land bridge that connects Russia to Crimea.
Speaking before the Atlantic Council think tank in February, Mr. Petraeus said Mr. Putin believes Russia can endure hardships better than Ukraine, the rest of Europe or the U.S.
“We have to prove him wrong in that regard. We have to hasten that moment when Putin is willing to enter into meaningful negotiations,” he said.
The Zelenskyy government has kept up a constant stream of requests for more arms and aid from the U.S. and its allies, reflecting the calculation that the next few months could determine the fate of the war.
Despite the heavy losses, Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy, called the fight for Bakhmut a “strategic success” and told the Italian newspaper La Stampa that Ukraine’s counterattack is coming.
“We will wear out the Russians and then concentrate elsewhere. We need long-range missiles,” Mr. Podolyak said.