So Bakhmut falls, and the war in Ukraine continues. The lesson is: Don’t hype a battle unless you know you can win.
The struggle for Bakhmut started in earnest last August. At the time, it was just one engagement on a fluid front. To the north, Ukraine’s Kharkiv counteroffensive kicked off in September, lasting about a month and retaking over 4,500 square miles. To the south, a two-month offensive recaptured over 900 square miles and liberated the strategically important city of Kherson, which had a prewar population four times that of Bakhmut.
This was the type of war the Ukrainians needed to fight: quick-moving, positional, dramatic, and relatively low casualty. They were creating a rapid series of events that the Russians could not respond to effectively, sowing chaos and panic. You could see the effects play out on a map. It had energy. It looked like winning.
Winter set in and the front stabilized, but the battle for Bakhmut continued. It was a block-by-block, grinding urban slugfest, a contest of mass over maneuver, a Verdun-like attrition battle that Ukraine had little hope of winning.
No, this is not hindsight; it was obvious back in January. Ukraine has one-third to one-quarter of Russia’s mobilization base, and its leaders care more about losing men than does Russian President Vladimir Putin, who was more than willing to send waves of barely trained draftees into the Bakhmut charnel house. Kyiv was fighting not Moscow but arithmetic. So, it was strange that the Ukrainian leadership would invest so much political capital into a city that they could not hold and that mattered little in the grand scheme of things.
This wasn’t like the siege of Mariupol at the beginning of the war, where isolated defenders made a heroic but doomed stand defending an important port and industrial center. That battle had the spirit of the Alamo or Thermopylae — there was no way to win, but resistance in the face of overwhelming odds inspired the rest of the country, and the world. It showed scrappy Ukrainians willing to fight and die for their country.
The situation at Bakhmut was different. Ukraine was not at the height of an existential crisis as it had been a year earlier. And the battle was preceded by some impressive Ukrainian victories. Had Bakhmut fallen quickly to the Russians in 2022, and had Ukraine stabilized the frontline slightly westward — about where it is now — the withdrawal would barely have made a headline, and thousands of Ukrainian troops would have survived to fight another day.
Instead, Kyiv played up the battle, pledged to hold the city, sent in the troops, and made it a cause. They went all-in on a bad hand, and now we see the results.
The Russians, of course, are jubilant. They have conquered a vacant shell of a city and are dancing on the rubble. Wagner Group commander Alexander Kuznetsov made a striking video holding a Russian flag atop a Bakhmut high rise, asking rhetorically where the Ukrainians were. Pro-Russian Twitter was afire with smug satisfaction. Putin said everything was going according to plan five months ago, and now Bakhmut makes it look as though he was right.
By contrast, President Volodymyr Zelensky told the U.S. Congress last December that Bakhmut is the “stronghold” of the Donbas and that the battle there would “change the trajectory of our war for independence and freedom.” Let’s hope he was wrong about that. Now Zelensky is at the G7 meeting, seeking continued military aid and forced to be contrite in the full glare of the media.
Continued aid is critical, but since the defense of Bakhmut was part of Ukraine’s aid pitch last winter, critics are saying the defeat proves the whole thing was a waste of money. They accuse Zelensky of hypocrisy for playing up Bakhmut’s strategic value then and downplaying it now. Of course, Bakhmut was never militarily vital, but Ukraine made it politically important and symbolically significant. By planting their flag there, the Ukrainians invited Putin to take it, and Russia’s president was more than willing to bleed his own country to do so if it also meant bleeding Ukraine.
Much rests now on the expected Ukrainian offensive, which could hopefully return maneuver to the battlefield. But the very fact that the offensive is expected — already widely debated and discussed — is worrisome. Ukraine needs the element of surprise to be successful. It can choose the time and place of the attack, and, so far, those critical details are unknown. But expectations are running high for the outcome, so much so that Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov warned that their capabilities are being overestimated. People are “waiting for something huge,” he said, which may lead to “emotional disappointment.”
Downplaying the outcome is a useful part of the expectations game. Ukraine should not be expected to take back all Russian-occupied territories. Maybe it will strike east to Starobilsk and cut Russian supply lines in Luhansk. It is possible that Ukraine could split the Russian land bridge at the Melitopol axis or, better still, drive to Mariupol and take back the coastline on the Sea of Azov. There is a chance it could push on to Crimea, but there are only two narrow entries into the peninsula, heavily defended. That might be a bridge too far.
In any case, Ukraine cannot afford to engage in another protracted urban scrap, wasting men and materiel for no gain. Ukraine’s objective should be to win a sweeping operational victory that either justifies continued international aid to their war effort or sets the conditions for peace talks on favorable terms.
Bakhmut was an expensive lesson. Don’t repeat it.
James S. Robbins is Dean of Academics at the Institute of World Politics and author of Erasing America: Losing Our Future by Destroying Our Past.