For the first time in eight months, the Russians are on the cusp of taking a Ukrainian city, albeit a small one already abandoned by more than 90% of its prewar population.
Ukrainian defenses in and around the eastern city of Bakhmut are being squeezed by a combination of intense artillery, mortar fire, and airstrikes and a substantial commitment of ground forces, both Russian regulars and fighters of the Wagner private military company.
If and when Bakhmut falls, it may be tempting to ask whether Russian forces are improving, learning from the catalog of mistakes they have made so far in this conflict and finally exploiting their superiority in numbers and firepower.
The answer: probably not.
Mick Ryan, a former Australian general and author of the WarInTheFuture newsletter, says “the Ukrainian Armed Forces might decide that they have achieved all they can by remaining in their defensive locations around Bakhmut, and that force preservation for the battles that follow is more important.”
But a Ukrainian withdrawal does not equal disaster if carried out in an orderly way. “It should be treated as a routine tactic rather than a harbinger of disaster,” Ryan says.
The Ukrainians have used Bakhmut to inflict massive losses on the attacking force: by some estimates at a ratio of 7:1. There comes a moment when it is smarter to withdraw than suffer growing losses and the damaging blow to morale of seeing the surrender of hundreds and maybe thousands of surrounded Ukrainian soldiers.
For the Ukrainians judging that moment is critical.
But for the Russians, taking Bakhmut would not alter the fundamental shortcomings in their campaign.