scorecardRussia captured Bakhmut, but it cost thousands of troops and has likely exhausted its remaining soldiers
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Russia captured Bakhmut, but it cost thousands of troops and has likely exhausted its remaining soldiers

Chris Panella,Ryan Pickrell   

Russia captured Bakhmut, but it cost thousands of troops and has likely exhausted its remaining soldiers
LifeInternational3 min read
  • Russia has essentially captured the city of Bakhmut, but it paid a heavy price, exhausting its forces.
  • The win in Bakhmut, which remains contested, is its first battlefield victory in almost a year.

Russian forces have declared victory in Bakhmut, a city in eastern Ukraine that has seen the bloodiest fighting of the war, but the contested win has cost thousands of soldiers and exhausted critical resources needed to move the fight forward.

Russia's objective has been to seize control of the eastern Donbas region, but the heavy toll taken by the months-long battle for Bakhmut has left Russian troops with little ability to do more than shift to defense and wait for Ukraine's long-anticipated counteroffensive, multiple military experts said.

"Many people have described this as a Pyrrhic victory, and I would agree with that. The Russians have exhausted themselves. They've run out of offensive capability," said Mark Cancian, a senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies' International Security Program.

A Pyrrhic victory is a win at unacceptable costs. The term stems from the Greek king Pyrrhus after his victory over the Romans in the Battle of Asculum in 279 BC. The victory was costly — historians say Pyrrhus said something to the effect of "another such victory and we shall be utterly ruined."

Given the losses sustained by Russian forces in the fierce battle for Bakhmut, the brunt of which were born by the paramilitary Wagner Group, there's certainly a case to be made that Russia's win may, indeed, be hollow.

Russia claimed victory on May 21, and the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank that has closely followed the war, said it was Moscow's first seizure of a large Ukrainian city since the capture of southeastern cities Severodonetsk and Lyschansk last summer. While Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, still assert that Kyiv's forces are active in Bakhmut, they have also acknowledged that it's mostly under Russian control.

"They've taken most of the city, but the city's a wreck and they've run out of combat power," Cancian, a retired Marine colonel, told Insider.

Michael Kofman, director of the Russian Studies Program at The Center for Naval Analyses, told The New York Times this week "this chapter will close, even as fighting continues in the fields outside the city.

"But," he said, "it speaks volumes about the Ukrainian will to fight, though soldiers may wonder whether the fight for Bakhmut was driven by political considerations over military ones."

Ukrainian and Russian troops have been engaged in intense combat over Bakhmut for nearly a year now, and both sides have seen countless soldiers killed and wounded.

While estimates of deaths and injuries on both sides are unclear, Russia suffered over 100,000 casualties in Ukraine between December 2022 and May of this year, and the most horrific fighting was in Bakhmut, where Russia used mass-casualty human wave tactics to achieve its ends.

With heavy Russian losses and depleted resources, Russia's next move is expected to be defensive. ISW noted around the time of Russia's claimed victory over Bakhmut that "Russian forces will likely need additional reinforcements to hold Bakhmut City and its flanks at the expense of operations in other directions." Offensive operations are considered less likely.

"I can't see the Russians mounting another major offensive at this point, short of them doing something big like another mobilization," Cancian said. "I think that they've exhausted themselves and, you know, they've now gone over to defensive because they're very worried about this offensive," he said.

Rob Lee, an expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told The Times that even if there are some minor tactical assaults, "Russia will likely primarily focus on defense and prepare for Ukraine's counteroffensive."

Highlighting the concerns among Russian forces about a looming Ukrainian counteroffensive, some commanders, such as Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, have sounded alarms with claims of a counteroffensive in "full swing" in response to localized counterattacks that lacked the necessary armor and combat power expected in a major operation.

Other analysts told The New York Times that Russia has dug intricate trenches in southern Ukraine and placed miles of landmines along the front lines. And that defense-in-depth strategy could prove difficult for Ukraine's counteroffensive, especially as combat tends to favor the defenders.

"If the counteroffensive makes a lot of progress, then, you know, clearly that's a good thing for the Ukrainians," Cancian said, adding that "if they get stopped by the Russian lines, and of course the Russians have been digging themselves in for months, that is a bad sign" for things to come.

As for what that means for the war long term, "once that counter offensive goes," he said, "we'll have a much better sense about what the balance of military power looks like."