In Bakhmut it is becoming increasingly risky for the Ukrainians. But the will to keep the city is strong. The attempt could end in disaster.
The situation in Bakhmut is dramatic: the Ukrainians are defending the city tooth and nail, while the Russian troops have managed to draw an encirclement around them, which only in the west has not yet been completely closed. If the Russians manage to close the last gap, they could take a large number of prisoners.
"Moscow would not only celebrate the capture of a Ukrainian city," says Colonel Markus Reisner ntv.de, "but above all could send pictures out into the world of several thousand soldiers being taken into captivity." The danger is acute because the Russians already have two of the three important arterial roads out of the city under control, the northern and the southern. They are already shelling the routes with artillery, but soon they will also be shelling them with grenade launchers and direct flat fire, for example from tank cannons or machine guns.
What is already a fact in the north and south of the city could soon also affect the still free road to the west, the last surviving route of the Ukrainians to the outside. "In the event of Russian artillery fire, the Ukrainian troops could still try to drive through at high speed," says Reisner, commander of the Austrian Guards Battalion, describing the danger they face there. "But if the Russians manage to position tank guns or machine guns with a view of the street, then movement is almost impossible." The boiler would then be "operationally closed".
The military historian compares the Russian approach to that of a meat grinder. The Kremlin troops are trying "to suck in the Ukrainians and then destroy them." From the expert's point of view, the Russians are on the verge of succeeding with this tactic. According to Reisner, there are only about four kilometers between the troops in the north and those in the south, "separating the two pincers from each other." There are still no pictures "that would show convoys being shot at on the road to the west".
The consequences if the pincers closed would be far-reaching: On the one hand, the logistics chain would break down, and no food, no material, no supplies would reach the Ukrainians in Bakhmut. A last-minute withdrawal of troops would mean that the soldiers would leave the city under direct fire - with many casualties. If such a withdrawal does not succeed, several thousand soldiers, estimated at up to 9,000 men, could be trapped.
A regional commander of the Ukrainians is said to have been on site at the front recently to get an idea of the threat in Bakhmut. From Reisner's point of view, it is evidence that the army is intensively discussing how to deal with the situation. Because there are three options.
Ukraine can try to prevent the encirclement by counterattacking the two pincers. She could now also withdraw the troops without the soldiers coming under fire as they retreated down the western road. If this time is missed, there is the third possibility to break out of the boiler by force, which can fail and in any case costs many soldiers' lives.
So why doesn't Ukraine focus on security and initiate the withdrawal immediately while it still can? This has to do with three factors, two of them military, one related to symbolism.
What would happen if Bachmut fell? Over the past eight years, during the fighting - primarily in Donbass - the Ukrainian armed forces have "digged in" very deeply and extensively. They managed to install three lines of defense, very roughly speaking, from north to south. During the first year of the war, Russian troops succeeded in breaking through the first line, the easternmost of the three, at several points.
Among other things, they made a breakthrough at Popasna in the summer. This allowed them to form a pocket of 40 x 40 km and allowed the Russian military to take possession of the major cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk. Kiev was able to withdraw its troops at the last minute, avoiding the capture of possibly thousands of soldiers.
Now the situation is similar, the Russians are trying to capture the "Fortress Bakhmut" - that's what the Ukrainians call the small town that forms a base in the second line of defense, west of the first. If Bachmut fell, then the second line would also be breached for the first time.
"Ukraine would then have to focus all of its defense efforts on the third line, which runs even further west," says Reisner. The Ukrainian third line is well protected and in all its breakthroughs the Russian forces are losing large numbers of men and materiel. So they move on significantly weakened. Yet they would eventually stand at that third - and final - line of defense. When the troops break through, open country lies unprotected behind.
The tenacious defense of Bakhmut has already cost the Ukraine a lot: After the successful counter-offensives at Kharkiv and Cherson, they had originally planned a third offensive: against the occupied Melitopol in the south, combined with an attack on the Kerch Bridge, which connects Russia with the Crimea connects. The aim was to isolate the Russian forces there.
But parallel to these plans, the Russians were able to massively increase the pressure in the Bakhmut area. "This pressure was so strong that Ukraine repeatedly had to withdraw forces to Bakhmut that were actually made available for the third offensive," says military expert Reisner. "Until the end there was no one left to go on the offensive with." So Bakhmut is tying up forces that Ukraine would have needed for a third attack.
The fact that Kiev's army is still fighting so hard for Bakhmut also has to do with the symbolic power of this fight. Much like Mariupol's long defense became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, so too is the Battle of Bakhmut charged with meaning. "We have a difference between the will of the Ukrainian leadership, which says, 'We hold this meter of ground', and the military necessity to do so," says Colonel Reisner.
In his view, Ukraine should surrender Bakhmut now in order to protect the armed forces and avoid capture. Moscow's propaganda images of captured soldiers would be fatal for Kiev. The high Russian losses indicate that Russia's armed forces will not be able to maintain their combat effectiveness in the long term, they will become weaker in the medium term. What the Ukrainian troops are now forced to give up with a heavy heart, they could try to retake later in the year in a counter-offensive. No decision seems to have been made on the Ukrainian side yet, but the time window could close soon.