AFU depletes Russian troops in Bakhmut, creating favourable conditions for counterattack: ISW forecasts combat developments
Ukraine's defence forces may conduct a limited retreat during fighting in eastern Bakhmut in Donetschina, but continue to inflict heavy losses on advancing mixed Russian forces. If the occupiers succeed in capturing the town, they may then resume offensive attempts at Kostyantynivka or Sloviansk, but will face enormous personnel and equipment shortages.
The likely imminent culmination of the Russian Armed Forces' offensive around Bakhmut, their already completed offensive near Ugledar and the halted offensive in Luhansk oblast create strong conditions for a future Ukrainian counteroffensive. This was stated in a briefing by the US Institute for the Study of War (ISW) on 5 March.
The analysts believe that the Ukrainian Armed Forces are conducting a "limited tactical retreat" in Bakhmut, and at the same time acknowledge that it is too early to assess the Ukrainian side's intentions regarding a complete withdrawal from the city.
Experts believe Ukrainian forces may be withdrawing their positions on the eastern bank of the Bakhmutka River, given the recent footage of the destruction of a railway bridge over the river in northeast Bakhmut on 3 March.
Russian war correspondents and bloggers claimed that Russian troops "captured the eastern, northern and southern parts" of the town on 5 March, claiming to be reporting from positions in eastern Bakhmut. The ISW could not independently verify these claims, only noting that geolocation footage showed Wagner PMC forces continuing their offensive in northeast Bakhmut and advancing near the Stupka railway station on 5 March.
"A Ukrainian soldier told a Ukrainian publication that as of March 4, Russian troops had not yet crossed the Bakhmutka River into the centre of Bakhmut, while Russian bloggers claimed that the Wagner group had pushed Ukrainian positions back into the city centre. It is unclear whether Ukrainian forces plan to hold positions on the western bank of the Bakhmutka river," the report said.
According to analysts, the Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut remains strategically reliable as it continues to "consume" Russian occupants and equipment as long as the Ukrainian Armed Forces do not suffer excessive losses. The ISW notes that the Ukrainian Defence Forces are unlikely to withdraw from Bakhmut immediately and may begin a gradual retreat with fighting to exhaust the Russian forces in the ongoing fighting in the city.
"It is unlikely that Russian forces can quickly make significant territorial gains while fighting in an urban environment that is usually favourable to defenders and may allow Ukrainian forces to inflict heavy losses on advancing Russian units, even as Ukrainian forces actively retreat. The centre of Bakhmut is located on the western bank of the Bakhmutka river, and Russian forces will have to fight their way through this area if they cannot advance directly to the north or south of it - west of the city centre," military experts predicted.
They added that such urban conditions and river features could benefit the AFU if they could hold the line from Khromovo (a settlement on the northwestern outskirts of Bakhmut) south to the T0504 Bakhmut-Konstantinovka highway. Russian bloggers acknowledge that Ukrainian forces retain the ability to defend Khromovo and continue to repulse attacks by the Russian Armed Forces on Ivanovskoye and on the T0504 highway to the south. Thus, the Ukrainian defence of positions near Khromovo and on T0504 could force the occupiers to fight through the urban area in the centre of Bakhmut, which could result in significant delays and losses for the enemy and generally accelerate the culmination of the Russian offensive.
"Urban fighting in Bakhmut could further weaken the already depleted Russian mixed forces, similar to the withdrawal of Ukrainian combat operations from the Severodonetsk-Lysychansk line, which effectively ended Russian offensive operations in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions in summer 2022," the ISW recalled.
The Russian Armed Forces' campaign to seize Bakhmut prompted Russian bloggers to form more realistic expectations for further Russian operations in Ukraine. But nine months of extremely gruelling and slow offensives by the occupiers in the Donetchi city area have largely contributed to the fact that propagandists are now making more restrained assessments of the "prospects" for the Russian army. Obviously, the invaders will not live up to the expectations of Russian "couch potato" supporters of Putin's "SWO".
ISW estimates that the Russian offensive to seize Bakhmut is likely to end regardless of whether or not the occupiers seize the town, and the Russian military will likely struggle to continue any subsequent offensives for several months.
Analysts recalled that conventional Russian military forces had recently concentrated and lost significant numbers of mobilized personnel for the since-concluded offensive near Ugledar in the Donetsk region.
Russian "major" offensives in Kupyansk, Svatovsk and Kreminna in Luhansk oblast have also resulted in no significant frontline successes. The Russian military relied on the Wagnerians to make any headway in the nine-month effort to capture Bakhmut and has since reinforced the Wagner forces in Bakhmut with Russian airborne units and mobilised personnel.
Judging by this, the occupiers have no way of significantly reinforcing the city area without pulling forces there from elsewhere along the front line due to a lack of idle reserves, with the possible exception of the 2nd Guards Motorised Rifle Division, which was last in Luhansk but was not engaged in combat operations.
"The culmination of all these efforts further confirms our assessment that Russian forces lack the combat power to withstand more than one simultaneous offensive. The Russian effort against Bakhmut does not contribute to Russian forces' operational or strategic objectives on the battlefield, and the significant Ukrainian defences in the vicinity undermine any tactical significance that the capture of Bakhmut is likely to have for Russian forces. The AFU will have an opportunity to seize the initiative on the battlefield and launch a counteroffensive when the Russian efforts around Bakhmut culminate either before or after the capture of the city," the ISW predicted.
The analysts also stressed that a constant shortage of personnel and equipment would prevent Russian forces from launching another prolonged offensive operation, such as the battle for Bakhmut, in the coming months of the war against Ukraine.
As OBOZREVATEL reported, Ukrainian warrior Stone spoke about the situation at Bakhmut. According to the defender, it is not easy for the Russians to take Bakhmut because of its geographical position.
Serhiy Cherevatyy, spokesman for the Eastern grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, assured that the Ukrainian defence of Bakhmut continues. Although the situation there is difficult, it remains possible to deliver ammunition to the military.
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