Zelenskyy digs into calls to step down from Bakhmut – POLITICO

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Doubts are growing about the wisdom of holding the shattered frontline city of Bakhmut against relentless Russian attacks, but Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is digging in, insisting his top commanders are united to maintain months of grueling defense.

The fighting around Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donbas escalated dramatically late last year, when Zelenskyy accused the Russians of moving the men – many of them prisoners recruited by the Wagner mercenary group – forward to almost certain death in “waves of meat”. Now the bloodiest battle of the war, Bakhmut offers a glimpse into the conflict close to World War I, with flooded trenches and landscapes blasted by artillery fire.

In recent weeks, as Ukrainian forces have been surrounded in near-extreme visibility, out of ammunition and with mounting casualties, there has been increased speculation both in Ukraine and abroad that the time has come to pull back to a new line of defense – a drawdown that is not widely seen as a massive military setback , even if Russia claims a symbolic victory.

However, in his speech on Wednesday evening, Zelenskyy explained that he was in favor of it being looted in Bakhmut.

“The entire general’s position was clear: strengthen this sector and inflict the maximum possible damage on the occupier,” Zelenskyy said in a video speech after meeting with Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Valery Zaluzhny and other senior generals to discuss the battle. This is causing growing anxiety among Ukraine’s allies and drawing criticism from some Western military analysts.

“All members expressed a common position to continue and defend the city,” Zelenskyy said.

This is the second time in as many weeks that the president of Ukraine has appealed for the support of his highest commands. Ten days ago, Zelenskyy’s office issued a statement, which also emphasized that Zaluzhnyy and Ukrainian Ground Forces Commander Oleksandr Syrskyi agreed on his decision to hold on to Bakhmut.

The long-standing logic of Ukraine’s armed forces has been that Russia has suffered disproportionately high casualties, allowing Kiev’s forces to crush the aggressors ahead of a Ukrainian counteroffensive expected soon in the spring.

The city of glass, brick and trash

Criticism has grown among some Ukrainians – and Western allies – about the continuation of the nearly nine-month-old battle. At first, the unrest was muted and expressed behind the scenes, but now it’s spilling out into the open.

On social media, some Ukrainian soldiers have expressed their anger at their plight, although they say they are doing their duty and following orders. “Bakhmut is a city of glass, bricks and debris that crackles underfoot like the fates of the fighters here.” tweeted one.

On Facebook, one lieutenant remarked: “There is a catastrophic shortage of ammunition.” He said that the Russians were well trailed and it took five to seven shots to hit the enemy position. He complained about the equipment challenges, saying: “Improvements – improvements have already been promised because anyone with a mouth makes promises.” But he cautioned that his remarks should not be taken as a plea to withdraw. “WE WILL FULFILL OUR OBLIGATIONS TO THE END, WHATEVER IT IS!” he concluded sadly.

Iryna Rybakova, spokeswoman for Ukraine 93rd brigade, also gave a taste of the risks doctors face in the city. “Those people who go back and forth to Bakhmut on business are taking an incredible risk. Everything is difficult” he tweeted.

A Ukrainian soldier gives food and water to a local elderly woman in the city of Bakhmut | Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

The key strategic question is whether Zelenskyy is resilient and whether the fight has become more a test of will than a tactically necessary operation to drain Russian forces before a major Ukrainian counterattack.

“Traveling around the front, you hear a lot of grumbling where people aren’t sure they’re embracing Bakhmut that it’s politically important” rather than tactically significant, says Michael Kofman, a US military analyst and director of the Russian Studies Program at the Naval Research Center.

Kofman, who traveled to Bakhmut to observe the ferocious fighting firsthand, said on the War on the Rocks podcast that while the battle was profitable for the Ukrainians a few months ago, when it was able to maintain a high kill ratio, now the number of kills is decreasing. returns from further engagement.

“What is happening now in the fight is that the friction rate is favorable for Ukraine, but it is not nearly as favorable as before. Casualties on the Ukrainian side are quite significant and require a significant number of replacements on a regular basis, he said.

The Ukrainians have admitted that they have also suffered significant losses in Bakhmut, which Russia is getting closer to blocking. However, they claim that the Russians are losing seven soldiers for every Ukrainian life lost, while NATO military officials estimate the kill ratio to be more like five to one. But Kofman and other military analysts are skeptical, saying both sides are now suffering about the same casualty.

“I hope the Ukrainian command really, really, really knows what it’s doing in Bakhmut,” tweeted Illia Ponomarenko, Kyiv Independent defense reporter.

Switch position

Last week, Zelenskyy received support for his decision to remain engaged in Bakhmut from retired US generals David Petraeus and Mark Hertling, on the grounds that the battle caused a much higher Russian casualty rate. “I think that at this point in time, using Bakhmut to hit the Russians is the way to go, given the extraordinary casualties the Russians are facing,” Petraeus, a retired general and former CIA director, told POLITICO.

But in the last couple of weeks, that has changed, said Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine officer now at the Institute for Foreign Policy Studies, and the kill ratio is is no longer a valid reason stay engaged. “Bakhmut is no longer a good place to expel Russian troops,” he tweeted. Lee says the number of Ukrainian casualties has risen since Russian forces, which include Wagner mercenaries and the Russian air force, pushed into the northern part of the city in late February.

The Russians are determined to record a victory at Bakhmut, just six miles southwest of the salt-mining town of Soledar, which they took two months ago after the Wagner group sacrificed thousands of their untrained fighters there as well.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has hinted several times that he sees no tactical military reason to defend Bahmut, saying the eastern Ukrainian city is more symbolic than operational, and its fall would not mean Moscow has regained the initiative in the war.

Ukrainian generals have rejected such remarks, saying there is a tactical reason for defending the city. Zaluzhnyy said on his Telegram channel: “It is key to the stability of the defense of the entire front.”

Volodymyr Zelensky and Sanna Marin attend the memorial service of Ukrainian soldier Dmytro Kotsiubailo, who died in Bakhmut | Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that US officials have been calling on the Ukrainians since late January to withdraw from Bakhmut, fearing that the depletion of their own forces would affect Kiev’s planned spring offensive. According to the Ukrainian authorities, there is no risk of influencing the attack, since the troops that are to be sent there are not fighting in Bakhmut.

This led some Ukrainian forces to complain that Kiev is sacrificing poorly trained reservists in Bakhmut and using them as consumables in the same way the Russians have done with Wagner conscripts. The commander of the 46th Brigade – with the call sign Kupol – told the newspaper that the losses will be suppressed with inexperienced conscripts. He has now been removed from his post, infuriating his soldiers, who have praised him.

Kofman is concerned that the Ukrainians are not playing to their military strengths in Bakhmut. A city located in a punch bowl is not easy to defend, he noted. “Ukraine is a dynamic army” and it is good when it can “lead a mobile defense”. He added: “Fixed roots, concentrating units there, putting people one after the other in positions previously beaten by artillery are not really in the interests of Ukraine.”

“They’ve built a tenacious defense. I don’t think the battle is nearly as favorable as it’s been somewhat publicly portrayed, but more importantly, I think they’re somewhat in danger of being encircled,” he added.

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