The war in Ukraine, now dragging on into its second year, has been punctuated by intense conflicts over towns and cities. Think of Kharkiv, Lyman, Mariupol and others. In this “war of the settlements”, where vast areas of Ukrainian hinterland have a thin scattering of troops and no discernible, permanent front line in the classic sense, the focus over the past month has very much been on the city of Bakhmut.
The Russians have been attacking here since the early days of the war, making little progress. In the process, most of this city of 100,000 inhabitants pre-war has been reduced to rubble, and of its citizens only around 5,000 remain.
And yet Bakhmut is of little strategic value, but that has not prevented the Russians throwing wave after wave of troops into their attack, many of whom have withered away in the face of the defenders’ fire. Casualties in this war are notoriously difficult to calculate, but the Ukrainians have said that their enemy is losing seven troops to their one. Without doubt this is a gross over-exaggeration, but the overall trend is probably indicative of the balance in losses.
Now, after advancing at a glacial pace for months, the Russians have invaded Bakhmut on three sides and have a toehold in the city suburbs. The Ukrainian line of communications and supply in and out has now been reduced to one major route, and most of the bridges have been blown. Things look dire for the defenders; they are in danger of being cut off and crushed rather like happened in Mariupol, or so it would seem.
Conventional military wisdom dictates that now would be the time for the UkrAF to withdraw before it is too late. And yet there is as yet no sign that they are planning to do so immediately, so perhaps they still have hope for optimism. The Ukrainian deputy mayor of Bakhmut, Oleksandr Marchenko, said Russia was not yet in control despite constant shelling.
If the UkrAF do decide to abandon the city, then they will become involved in one of the most difficult and demanding operations of war – the withdrawal in contact. Getting away with the bulk of your troops and equipment needs great care in planning and execution, and not a little luck too.
Secrecy, deception, stealth, and camouflage are paramount to persuade the Russian attackers that nothing has changed. The first stage is to thin out and withdraw non-essential units and personnel from the immediate battle area. This will probably have to be done at night and under cover of artillery bombardment and vigilant air defence to keep the Russian drones at bay.
Then comes the all-important planning of the stages of withdrawal; who goes first with what and to where, and who stays behind to cover them, what stores and supplies are left to sustain them, and what can be evacuated straight away. I would imagine the UkrAF have started this process already but it needs constant reassessment and reconsideration.
How many troops to leave behind to cover the withdrawal is a vital aspect; too few and the attackers may be able to follow up and disrupt the whole process, too many and the chances of numbers being made PoW increases. It’s a fine balance and a matter of judgement.
Ultimately the plan for the withdrawal itself needs to be made. It’s a combined arms operation ideally, with protection of the retreating troops being afforded by artillery, air interdiction, and supporting arms and services to cover the movement. Usually there will be a rearguard, or several rearguards, manning second and subsequent lines of defence through which the frontline units withdraw. Engineers have a major part to play in delaying the enemy follow-up with minesfields, obstacles, booby traps, and demolitions.
The ultimate goal is to achieve a “clean break”, where enemy forces are unable to interfere with the operation and friendly forces get away. With good planning and good fortune this can be achieved by stealth and ingenuity alone; the enemy wakes up one morning to find you’re no longer there. Otherwise the break has to be fought for, oftentimes in difficult circumstances.
If the Ukrainians do abandon Bakhmut then no doubt the Russians will claim a great victory, but the truth is that such manoeuvres are part and parcel of the ebb and flow of battle. The Russians did it themselves at Kherson and got away with most of their troops and equipment, perhaps helped by the fact that understandably the UkrAF had no desire to destroy one of their own cities.
Be that as it may, any Russian victory at Bakhmut will be Pyrrhic. Their casualties have been enormous. And with any luck most of the remaining Ukrainian defenders will have lived to fight another day.
Lt Col Stuart Crawford’s latest book Tank Commander (Hardback) is available now