Russian forces are ratcheting up pressure on the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, pouring in waves of fighters to break Ukraine’s resistance and targeting supply lines in a bloody campaign aimed at securing Moscow’s first significant battlefield victory in months.
Eleven months after Moscow launched its invasion, Bakhmut and the areas around it have become a center of intense fighting, with growing importance as both sides add forces to the battle. Russia intensified its effort to capture Bakhmut, which may be key to seizing the entire Donbas area, after months of bombardment beginning in the summer yielded few gains.
“The situation is very tough,” the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said in a recent nightly address after meeting with military leaders. He said, “There are constant attempts to break through our defense.”
Over the course of the war, firepower has proved critical to Russian gains, but the battle for Bakhmut has been different.
Increasingly, Ukrainian fighters and analysts say, Moscow has been relying on a cruder tactic: trying to tip the city into its win column through the sheer weight of troop numbers. As a result, the Ukrainians say, Russian casualties in recent fighting in Bakhmut have been higher than in previous months.
Part of Russia’s evolving strategy appears to be to overwhelm Ukrainian defenses with waves of soldiers, many drawn from President Vladimir V. Putin’s call-up of 300,000 men in September. That would be a departure from Moscow’s summer campaigns elsewhere in the Donbas, when artillery pounded cities for weeks before Russia launched a sustained ground offensive.
In Bakhmut, Ukraine, too, has suffered heavy casualties. But the calculation for each side is not the same.
Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington, Va., said the battle there has cost Russia more in human losses, because its fighters have often fought on foot, unsupported by armored vehicles. But while Ukraine’s losses may be fewer in number, he said on a recent episode of a military affairs podcast, War on the Rocks, they may be more painful.
Many of the troops fighting for Russia around Bakhmut have been recruited from prison, and are less well trained than many of the soldiers Russia began the war with. Ukraine has mostly relied on national guard and other forces to hold its main defensive line in Bakhmut, with better-trained infantry units rushing in if those fighters are attacked or retreat.
The State of the War
“Ukraine’s been forced to essentially trade higher-quality troops to hold Bakhmut against expendable Russian forces,” Mr. Kofman said on the podcast. That, he said, could “impede Ukrainian plans for an offensive down the line.”
Jan. 31, 2023, 7:13 p.m. ET
Bakhmut’s strategic value, military analysts say, is as a crossroads for some of the region’s highways. Capturing the city, which is in Donetsk Province, would not guarantee that Moscow could make major advances in the east, but it would put Russian forces in better position to do so.
Despite suffering setbacks elsewhere in eastern Ukraine and in the south, since last fall, Russian troops edging toward Bakhmut from the east have gradually squeezed the city. This month, they took the salt mining town of Soledar, six miles to the northeast.
To the south, Ukrainian soldiers who recently left the front line said that a paved road that had been their main supply route into Bakhmut was now within range of Russian artillery and tanks, though still in Ukrainian hands. This leaves Ukraine relying on a road west to the town of Chasiv Yar, itself the target of frequent Russian attacks and harder to traverse.
In past battles in the Donbas, Russian forces have often aimed to encircle a city first, leaving Ukraine to decide whether to expend costly resources to defend it. The pitched battle over Bakhmut suggests that Ukraine has overcome its qualms about engaging directly in a drawn-out fight for a city and is prepared to sustain losses in the hope that it can deplete its enemy’s strength still further.
On Tuesday, fighting was also ranging elsewhere in Donetsk, in the town of Vuhledar.
Moscow has moved from small-scale probing attacks around the town to a more concentrated assault, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Tuesday, two days after Mr. Zelensky described Vuhledar as among the areas “under constant Russian attack.”
The town, which had a prewar population of around 14,000, has been almost destroyed, but a Ukrainian military official emphasized on Tuesday that it was still under Kyiv’s control.
Military analysts say that Ukrainian forces have been using their positions in and around Vuhledar to launch attacks on the region’s main railway hub in the occupied town of Volnovakha, less than 10 miles away, in a bid to weaken Russia’s resupply efforts. The head of Ukraine’s regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said on Tuesday that there had been “intense fire” in the area.
In the coming weeks and months, as both sides prepare for the offensives expected in the spring, Ukraine will be strengthened by new weaponry, including tanks and rocket systems supplied by the United States and other allies.
On Tuesday, the French defense minister announced that his country would deliver 12 more Caesar howitzers to Ukraine and step up efforts to train Ukrainian soldiers, a significant increase in military aid from a country that had recently shown reluctance to part with more of its advanced artillery.
And last week, the United States and Germany agreed, after a prolonged Ukrainian campaign, to provide battle tanks to Ukraine, among other military aid. Ukraine is also pressing its allies for jet fighters, although President Biden has resisted sending Ukraine F-16s.
But for now, the many new troops drafted in the fall are giving Moscow an advantage.
Aurelien Breeden and Matt Surman reporting.