Decision to defend Bakhmut strategically sound, says ISW

21 February, 02:39 PM
The Armed Forces of Ukraine are restraining the occupying forces of Russia along the entire front line and will be able to seize the initiative (Photo:Oleksandr Ratushniak/File Photo/Reuters)

The Armed Forces of Ukraine are restraining the occupying forces of Russia along the entire front line and will be able to seize the initiative (Photo:Oleksandr Ratushniak/File Photo/Reuters)

The Ukrainian Armed Forces will be able to seize the initiative on the battlefield this year, and Ukraine’s decision to continue defending Bakhmut is a strategically justified attempt to restrain the Russian forces on a separate section of the front and weaken them, the U.S think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) wrote on Feb. 20.

ISW analysts recalled Western media reports that the U.S. is concerned about the ability of the Ukrainian army to defend Bakhmut while conducting counteroffensive operations, but assesses that “Ukraine’s decision to defend Bakhmut is a strategically sound effort to pin Russian forces in a discrete area of the front and attrit them, and Zelensky likely tempered his administration’s stance on Bakhmut to make a limited rhetorical concession to US officials.”

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“It has long been clear that Ukraine would not continue to defend Bakhmut at the risk of seeing large numbers of Ukrainian troops encircled in the city, so Zelensky’s comment is not likely a real change in Kyiv’s strategy,” the report reads.

ISW also cited the words of Fedir Venislavskyi, a member of Ukraine’s parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defense, that the Russian Federation has “all combat-ready units on the line of contact In Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts, and partly in Zaporizhzhya Oblast,” reaffirming the assessment that Russia does not have large uncommitted combat ready reserves that can be deployed and change the course of operations.

The report also praised U.S. President Joe Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv on Feb. 20, saying it showed the West’s support for Ukraine.

The ISW also paid attention to the internal processes taking place in the Russian army, in particular, the growing conflict between regular and mobilized forces and the mercenaries of Wagner’s private mercenary company.

“The Russian military command has likely cut off Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s independent access to artillery shells and heavy weaponry as part of the effort to professionalize Russian conventional forces,” the experts said.

Prigozhin claimed that Wagner has “complete shell hunger” as a result of Russian military officials ignoring his demands and introducing new limitations and restrictions on his procurement of ammunition. He also claimed that the mercenaries received some weapons from unnamed generals and officers who violated the military code to help him.

The Russian Ministry of Defense also deprived “Putin’s chef” of the opportunity to recruit prisoners and train at separate training grounds belonging to the Russian armed forces.

“Prigozhin’s appeal may have misrepresented the devastating impact of the lack of artillery ammunition on Wagner to mask his true frustrations with Wagner’s inability to have and operate its own artillery systems independent of conventional Russian units,” ISW experts said.

Meanwhile, the ISW characterized relations between Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov and Prigozhin, in light of a recent meeting between the two, as friendly.

“Kadyrov already effectively has his own paramilitary structure in the form of the Chechen combat units that he raises and over which he appears to retain some command and control,” the analysts said.

The report also stated that the decision of the Russian Ministry of Defense to officially integrate fighters from the Donbas puppet authorities into the Russian army likely suggests that the Russian MoD does not fully grasp the scale of the underlying challenges of integrating irregular forces into the professional military, especially during a period of intense combat operations.

“These efforts would be logical if Russia had initiated them during peacetime, but are a bureaucratic burden that will likely generate further discontent toward the already heavily scrutinized Russian MoD,” the ISW believes.

“The Russian military command is embarking on too many drastic changes that will either require time or will cause significant tension.”

Special attention in the report is also paid to the creation of informational conditions for launching strikes to disable Ukrainian nuclear power plants.

A prominent Russian news aggregator recently called on the Russian military to systematically strike the external electrical substations of Ukrainian nuclear power plants in order to force the Ukrainian authorities to carry out emergency shutdowns of the stations.

“The Russian MoD likely responded to a call for the Russian military to systematically target electrical infrastructure supporting Ukrainian nuclear power plants (NPPs) by setting possible informational conditions for strikes aimed at forcing emergency shutdowns at these NPPs,” the experts wrote.

Attacks on facilities near NPPs are always associated with a certain risk, the analysts note. The Russian MoD’s statement may also be attempting to set informational conditions for a potential radiological incident at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant (ZNPP), in light of reports that Russia’s draining of the Kakhovka Reservoir may be putting the ZNPP’s cooling system in peril, the experts say.

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Other conclusions from the ISW:

  • The restructuring of proxy militias suggests that the Russian military command is trying to achieve its desired reforms while the Russian MoD has the favor of Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
  • Kadyrov likely attempted to assuage Prigozhin’s possible anger at Kadyrov’s likely refusal to join Prigozhin’s informational campaign against the Russian MoD.
  • U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the US government is concerned about China’s possible consideration of sending lethal aid to Russia.·Russian troops continued ground offensive operations along the Svatovo-Kreminna line.
  • Russian forces continued offensive operations around Bakhmut as well as in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City area and western Donetsk Oblast.
  • Ukrainian officials reported that Russian forces may be struggling to repair air defense systems deployed in Ukraine.
  • Russian occupation authorities are using an "anti-terrorist" commission to justify seizing and nationalizing assets in occupied Crimea for economic and military benefit.

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