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What is happening in Bakhmut and what does it mean for Russian-Ukrainian war?

by Francis Farrell and Anna Yakutenko and Liza Pyrozhkova March 30, 2023 8:08 PM 14 min read
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Kyiv Independent reporter Francis Farrell speaks to John Spencer, U.S. veteran and chair of urban warfare studies at the Modern War Institute at West Point.

A leading expert in the study of warfare in and around cities, Spencer shares his unique insight into the bloodiest engagement of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the battle of Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast.

The conversation, which covers the battle itself as well as its consequences for the war as a whole, took place in Kyiv on March 28 at the event co-organized by the Kyiv Independent and the Borderlands Foundation.

Find out more about Borderlands Foundation here:

Here is the transcript of the interview.

Francis Farrell, journalist at the Kyiv Independent: Hello and welcome to a Kyiv Independent discussion with a guest that we are very lucky to have on today. John Spencer, Head of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute. John is on a visit to Kyiv. Thank you very much for talking to us!

John Spencer, Head of Urban Warfare Studies at the Modern War Institute: Thanks for having me!

Francis Farrell: Today I want to focus with you on maybe not the most decisive but one of the most if not the most brutal battles that is going on in the war today that everyone is talking about. Obviously Bakhmut. So just to start off, where are we at the moment? What does the fighting look like in the city in what you're seeing?

John Spencer: Unfortunately, it's very brutal… We usually say urban battles are combat in hell. But what we're seeing in Bakhmut is probably some of the worst fighting that you can imagine with great sacrifice on both sides and daily fighting over this objective which has… What I get a lot of is why? Why and is it worth it? Which is really hard… depending on who you're talking to to have that conversation on the objectives in war, the political nature of warfare. And even in a place, the geographic location of Bakhmut, right? I honestly think the reason has changed over time, which did not change the value that a country will invest in that and that is what we are seeing. But we are seeing just brutal warfare and really a day-to-day tipping point of which way it will go.

Francis Farrell: About that. We have seen reports from UK Intelligence and the Institute for the Study of War talking about the situations stabilizing around Bakhmut, potentially culminating. But then you look at the map and you see the situation with the city being surrounded on almost all sides and the last remaining road being under fire control. Can you talk about stabilization or culmination in a situation like this?

John Spencer: It is really hard and when you don't have clear organization, especially on the Russian side, and when you talk about different groups being pieced together… I mean, culmination for me has clear definitions. One of them being when you can no longer continue your mission. So for the Russians, it would be that they could no longer advance. So, people feel that there's just a culmination coming where they've gone as far as they're going to get and they won't be able to do that. One of my friends calls it the glove. They won't be able to close the glove around Bakhmut, which has a very interesting topography on the west side, even though the battle has progressed and past the Bakhmutka River into the west side, into the dense urban terrain, which is hard. Another evaluation of culmination is just a percentage of losses. As an analyst you could say, “Hey, look, this military unit has 50% casualties of its main weapons and equipment. It is close to culminating.” But that's assuming the values of the other country, where in some cases we know that Russia doesn't care if they lose 100% of that formation. They are going to keep telling them to move forward until they are all gone because they don't value it, depending on what population it is. So culmination is really tricky. I agree with you. It's really hard to say that… To know for a fact who is getting ready to culminate when there's so much action going on on a day-to-day basis. I'm on both sides. Really on the Ukrainian side it's a question of… do you pull the Ukrainians out? Because the value of Bakhmut as a military objective is not much to keep fighting there. And it gets to the reasons why the battle has progressed.

Francis Farrell: Right. Following up on that, we had the loss of Soledar in January. And what we saw in the nature of the urban fighting there is that once the Russians broke into the urban area, it was over in a very short time actually. Do you think there's a difference here in Bakhmut? Like once the Russians do break into that built-up area, which we are seeing in the past few days that they are doing, who's got the advantage there?

John Spencer: Yeah, that's tough. We had the same with all these variables that matter. Like what is the goal of both sides? What is the investment that they're willing to give on each side? So when one force enters the urban terrain, it doesn't necessarily mean that there's a greater chance of loss  than if they were just on the exterior. Actually, more fighting has happened outside of Bakhmut than inside of Bakhmut. Different formations are given the task of holding the inside. Yes, usually we say that the defender has an advantage, but not the advantage because he's in really dependable positions, and that's what we're seeing in Bakhmut. If you're in some of those really old Soviet-style apartment buildings with basements, you can hold them for a long time, but not forever. That's where we used to say a defender has an advantage, not the advantage. And if the other side can move to push enough forces in and then it becomes an attrition battle… This is what we've seen in Bakhmut — change where it starts off with, you know, five dead Russian soldiers to one Ukrainian. Most analysts believe that the attrition value is now getting close to parity, even in a dense urban fight, where keeping terrain against an attacker… the advantages really come down to what resources you have, which is why your artillery ammunition and other resources and, as you said, a resupply route are now under fire control, making it really hard to resupply those forces. So the advantage can actually change from block to block.

Francis Farrell: Yeah, so we had Rob Lee actually saying the same thing about this attrition equation. How the choice to hold it is no longer necessarily mathematically in Ukraine's favor and Ukraine is losing some very experienced brigades. So if I can put you on the spot and ask you about this decision to stay, to what extent do you think it's political? And what are the other motivations behind it? And is it the right decision at the moment?

John Spencer: But warfare is not just numbers. It is not just attrition values. The value of sacrifice changes based on one’s country and politics. The war is human and it is political. And the value of Bakhmut politically has greatly changed since the beginning of the fight for Bakhmut about six months ago. It changed in December when the president visited it. It changed and it continues to change. I don't think anybody can know whether it makes sense to hold it without knowing everything that Ukraine knows. That's a really tough command decision to make and know what else is being planned. To know if even there is value in keeping the fight there just to keep the world's attention there. There is value politically in that and there is value militarily in keeping the attention there. Do I think that there is so much value that Ukraine would sacrifice everything that is in there right now? No. They get to make the decision though. This is what we call the initiative. Some people might think that Russia has the initiative in fighting in Bakhmut. That they're pressing, they're attacking, and that they're driving Ukraine's decisions. I don't think so. I actually think Ukraine is fighting Russians there because that's where Russians have decided they want to fight. They can make a decision to pull back and let Russia have that ground, although that, of course, is not a good decision at any moment. It's really arguable on why it should continue, and the numbers matter. Of course, like you said, there is valuable brigade leadership, valuable trained soldiers, and that is hard to replace. But we as the analysts have no clue of what are the other factors both politically and militarily factoring into why they’re continuing to fight in Bakhmut. It isn't just because of what Michael could call a sunk-cost fallacy. Or why is this battle continuable? Because it's been going on for a while. There are other variables there as well.

Francis Farrell: So you think there's like an inherent value in just the fact that you're denying Russia… what they wanted to do even if that's costly to you as well. You're stopping them right there.

John Spencer: Yes, that is one simple. Russia, if it takes Bakhmut, it's nothing militarily. Politically, it gets to say it has a victory. There is value in not allowing Russia to have a victory even domestically for the Russian population or internationally.

Francis Farrell: But still, what you see now, what we are seeing, the way the maps are moving… would you describe it as a holding operation at this point? Or is there possibly an aim to counter attack on the flanks and kind of relieve some of that pressure? Or is it just a matter of time?

John Spencer: So, what's going on right now is called an area defense. It's terrain-based: you're holding ground. There are only three types of defenses. The other one is called a mobile defense. That's where you have a force holding, like what's going on in Bakhmut… As an enemy is focused on attacking it, then you are bringing in another force. It's called a striking force and that's why it's a mobile defense. And you smash the attackers against the defenders. Am I saying that Ukraine has that capability? I don't know. Would it make sense if and when we ever find that that's one of the courses of action? Absolutely. And then the other one is withdrawal. That's the other defense. Withdraw when you want under the conditions you want. Again, some of the early theories were this was a place where you could attrite the Russian war machine, whether that's Wagner or other military forces. Now, they're saying because of the attrition values that's no longer the case. I'd say that I don't know if that's true. They're still killing Russians.

Francis Farrell: And a lot of them… A lot of reporting on Bakhmut recently, including from the Kyiv Independent and from the Washington Post, has talked about complaints from the soldiers about not enough support, about really recently mobilized, inexperienced units being thrown in, about not enough artillery. I was up near Soledar recently and they said they had five mortar shells for about ten mortars every day. Also not enough support from armor potentially… but we also know that Ukraine is 100 percent planning these big offensive operations somewhere probably in the south in spring-summer. So, you know, they need to kind of save up for that in a sense. How do you see that equation? How important are those offensive plans in the way they approach the defense of Bakhmut?

John Spencer: There are different levels of war, right? So there's the soldier level that we call the tactical, then there’s the operational, as in the campaign, like where would a spring or summer offensive go? And how important is it to keep Bakhmut going on to divert attention from that? How important is it to ask soldiers to sacrifice? With this much greater plan in mind and in motion, which is very, very common in history, the people being asked to sacrifice don't know what their greater plan is. You try to tell those forces as much as you can. I think it can factor in greatly but I don’t have insider information. Like we said, nor can they let anybody know what the greater plan is. Is that sacrifice purposeful, or is it really the state of the military logistics for the Ukrainian military along the front line? Or is it purposeful, and they know about it and not addressing it, continuing it because of this other plan? It's really hard to know. Would it be atypical? No. So it could either be that it's a really sad state or it's a calculated decision.

Francis Farrell: Or a bit of both.

John Spencer: A bit of both.

Francis Farrell: About the terrain in the area… People say a lot that maybe they should withdraw because the area behind, around Chasiv Yar is perhaps a better place to defend. But then if you look at the map north of Chasiv Yar, between Bakhmut… all the way to Kramatorsk, basically, there are very few cities. There's this rolling terrain. So what do you think of the equation there? Is that a real issue that… okay, you could hold them at Chasiv Yar but then they could continue this bulge in the north and take a lot more territory.

John Spencer: Yeah. I think that's another calculated decision. That is assuming that the Russians have a lot of capability left. That if they get past Bakhmut… Most people were pretty sure like, well, you're not going to Kramatorsk, you're not advancing much further. If they had the capability, which we’re almost positive that they don't, because they do a big flanking maneuver and haven’t seized more ground. But the problem is if you're going to seize ground, you’ve got to hold the ground, which is what we've seen even in the Kharkiv offensive – that they don't have the resources to hold large parts of ground that are urban-centric. While great swaths of ground matter, you only hold that by holding the critical nodes, which are the urban areas. I would say it's all about calculated risk. The risk of them having the capability to make that big of a move over that much ground is much less than trying to take a critical node with a lot of resources in a small place. This is the problem of Russia. In Ukraine, Ukraine’s geography, it is a great swath of geography. And Russia doesn't have the capability to control it all, even the eastern Donbas.

Francis Farrell: Speaking actually of the Russian forces and the state of them and what they could do in the future: what do you think is the significance of this Wagner factor in the battle for Bakhmut? And what could happen afterwards? The troops they use, the tactics they use, how has that shaped this battle?

John Spencer: There's a time and a place for the tactics that have been used the Wagner group has learned. Even in the urban fights, the tactics of the Russians and the tactics of the Wagner group were different in the beginning as they are now. Even though they used to have unskilled soldiers, they are utilizing techniques in which they can make it effective and giving them single points to go to that point and take that ground. It is not as good as a quality military formation with an echelon of leadership that can accomplish greater things. There's a time and a place for that factor and Russia has shown it can effectively insert that factor when it wants to in special locations like Soledar, where there is an achievable goal in which they can take this lower quality – but effective in a certain tactic – force and insert it. But we're also seeing that that doesn't work in all situations where you do need a Russian-trained formation with an echelon of equipment and leadership and training. All these calculations matter and time matters, so they learn but they also get attritted, and it is a complex calculation.

Francis Farrell: Right now we’re talking, we see some news about Avdiivka potentially becoming a second Bakhmut. I was there just last week. It was pretty horrible, to be honest. But there you don't hear much about Wagner being operational. It's more the Russian military, the regular Russian military. Is this kind of Bakhmut… the new style of the Russian offensive all along the front? Are they going to try and repeat that same situation?

John Spencer: I don't think so. I don't think they're gonna put Wagner in the lead of any operation in the future. I think this is again why the political nature of that battle changed. The Wagner leadership wanted it to be a success for them so they could say, “Look, I can be your winning force. The Russian military can't. Me, the Wagner group, Prigozhin… all these can be.” That was taken from them in Bakhmut. I don't think that this will be a model for going forward at all. And I don't think the Russian military wants it to be the model going forward at all.

Francis Farrell: Just to finish up, you talked about morale earlier in the battle of Kyiv, but now we're seeing a very different style of warfare, just completely dominated by artillery. And as we talked about, some units are potentially playing the role of some kind of sacrificial lamb for a future offensive. From what you see, is this sustainable? These units that have been in the thick of it, in hell for so many, so many months. What's that like? The morale situation after that long fighting?

John Spencer: It can break a unit, it literally can. But this is where there are so many variables. Morale is just a feeling that goes up and down day-to-day. The will to fight is the critical thing and it can dampen… morale can go so low that you don't want to fight anymore. You don't see the value of your sacrifice. You don't see the reason you're fighting for. That takes a lot of leadership from the small unit to the national level… that's why the visits to the front line are so important. That's why the messages that they know that people know and they understand are so important. Because that's when your morale starts to tank and you see, like we've seen on the Russian side, which we don't see on the Ukrainian side. Like I'm so forgotten that I don't see the value of my sacrifice and I will not fight, I will surrender or I just won't fight. That's when morale or these intangibles come into play. So in places where you see it visibly waning or being stressed significantly… and you interview the soldiers. That's where leadership and other things that you know can improve morale have to be implemented and these are the lessons that this war has taught people. That as important as the weapons or even giving them more ammunition is ensuring the soldiers’ morale and cohesion… like they have to be in it together because the worst thing is when the soldiers you're talking to are like… they were forgotten about, “they don't care about us, I'm alone.” That's where all this stuff they should.... All these lessons are known in the history of war. It's when they're forgotten and they're left to almost atrophy… small unit cohesion, all that. Forces can be going without food, without water for a long time, without ammunition, and still do amazing things because they have the will to fight.

Francis Farrell: With all that in mind, looking forward… Specifically if we take the Donbas, this very built-up area and the momentum that's going back and forth... How do you think it's gonna develop into spring and summer?

John Spencer: There's going to be a major operation, like you said. Most people are guaranteed. That operation will be as significant to the morale of the Ukrainian soldiers as it is to the Ukrainian people, as it is to the international community. The objectives are important but the actual execution of the operation is what, like it was in World War II… Even for the people that feel like they're being sacrificed, if they know that that's starting to happen, it will increase morale and motivation greatly because it is the reason. Without even being told they know that they are fighting for, that they haven't forgotten. That operation is so significant for so many reasons but especially what we were just talking about. It will send a signal to everybody, and I'm sure they'll do whatever they can in multimedia and all this just to let people know, even with the objectives which will be significant in the war. And that's why everybody wants to know where they're going and what they're going to do. I care about that, yes. But I actually care about it. It is actually just happening. Because of what it's going to do for the will of the soldiers, of the people and of the alliance.

Francis Farrell: Thank you very much for these really insightful comments. Really, really happy to have you on board, and good luck in the rest of your trip, and we'll be happy to see you again soon.

John Spencer: Thank you.

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