The battle for Bakhmut is grinding to a halt, it seems. And Ukrainian forces just barely are hanging on in the city, which anchors the front line in Luhansk Oblast in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region.
Barring a dramatic reversal—a major commitment of fresh Russian forces or a sudden collapse in Ukrainian morale—the battle could end on favorable terms for Kyiv, and soon.
“The Russian offensive operation in Luhansk Oblast is likely nearing culmination, if it has not already culminated,” the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, D.C. noted on Wednesday.
That could set the stage for Ukraine’s widely-anticipated spring counteroffensive.
The 10-month fight for Bakhmut, which has involved tens of thousands of regular Russian army troops and Wagner Group mercenaries and a similar number of Ukrainian active and territorial troops, might have peaked just a few days after the first anniversary of Russia’s wider war on Ukraine, on Feb. 24.
On or just before March 2, Russian troops advanced north and south of the ruined city with its pre-war population of 70,0000. In the south, the Russians cut the 0504 road threading into Bakhmut from the west.
In the north, the Russians approached to within rocket-propelled grenade range of the only other major road into Bakhmut from the west, the 0506.
Cutting both roads would’ve trapped potentially thousands of Ukrainian troops—including special forces, territorials and elements of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade—clinging to the shell-pocked remains of Bakhmut.
But the Ukrainians held off further Russian advances in the south, and counterattacked in the north. Ukrainian engineers raced along the 0506 and laid an armored bridge to replace a permanent span that the Russians had destroyed.
Pitched fights over the 0506—especially in and around the settlement of Khromove, just northwest of Bakhmut—cost both sides dearly.
Russian rockets and artillery knocked out some of the Ukrainian vehicles making the dangerous run along the 0506 and across that armored bridge into Bakhmut. Ukraine’s losses include a rare BTR-4E and a 93rd Brigade T-80 tank with unique modifications. Tragically, the T-80’s famous crew reportedly died in the attack on their tank.
The Ukrainians in turn killed Russians by the dozen. Or hundreds, even. Blasting them with artillery and tank fire. Sending in drones to drop grenades on their fighting positions. On Wednesday, a 93rd Brigade missile team shot down a Russian Su-25 attack jet possibly flown by a Wagner Group mercenary.
On March 6, a NATO official told CNN five Russians were dying for every one Ukrainian fatality. Russia may have suffered one of its costliest days of the war, on or just before Saturday, when Ukrainian forces killed nearly 1,100 Russians in 24 hours—this according to a bold claim by the Ukrainian general staff.
Both sides ran low on ammunition, heavy equipment and skilled troops. But the Russians apparently ran lower. “Manpower, artillery and equipment losses in fights for Bakhmut will likely constrain Wagner’s ability to complete a close encirclement of Bakhmut,” ISW reported.
What happens next depends on what reserves both sides can mobilize. The Russian army recently moved the 2nd Motor Rifle Division—part of the once-elite 1st Guards Tank Army—into the forest 25 miles north of Bakhmut.
A Russian motor-rifle division should have thousands of trained infantry and hundreds of modern tanks and fighting vehicles. But the 2nd MRD, like all 1st GTA units, probably is a shell of its former self after suffering back-to-back defeats around Kyiv and Kharkiv in 2022.
The U.K. Defense Ministry even speculated that 1st GTA units might replace the hundreds of modern vehicles they’ve lost with 60-year-old, and thoroughly obsolete, T-62 tanks that the Kremlin has pulled out of long-term storage.
If other uncommitted formations are in the same condition the 2nd MRD reportedly is in, reserves might not be able to save Russia’s faltering Bakhmut offensive.
The Ukrainians, by contrast, deliberately have been withholding many of their newest brigades while also reequipping veteran brigades with Western-made tanks and fighting vehicles. The 4th Tank Brigade, holding positions around Bakhmut, is the first Ukrainian unit to deploy German-made Leopard 2 tanks.
It’s these fresh and reequipped Ukrainian formations that likely will lead Kyiv’s spring counteroffensive. A counteroffensive that could hit the Russians when they’re weakest: having expended thousands of lives and irreplaceable weaponry trying and failing to surround Bakhmut.