The current focus of the Russian-Ukrainian war centres on Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.
The fight for the city, which started in the summer of 2022, continues unabated. The battle has morphed from one of dubious immediate strategic benefit to Russia into one that has come to symbolize its war efforts. It also highlights the current deficiencies in Russia’s armed forces.
Symbolism is not new to warfare. The Battle of Stalingrad, although it had strategic calculations, was also important due to Adolf Hitler’s fixation on its symbolic value.
Symbolic acts, furthermore, can have strategic impact beyond their immediate military concerns. The problem is when symbolism overtakes sensible strategy.
‘Full restoration’ of territory
Bakhmut, from a strictly military standpoint, does not significantly change the war. For Ukraine, however, Bakhmut’s defence is aligned with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s arguments that he will accept nothing less than the full restoration of his country.
Russia, despite superior military capabilities, has so far failed to take the city.
Urban warfare favours defenders because they possess an intimate knowledge of the terrain that aggressors don’t. Furthermore, when an army relies on artillery and tactical bombing to the extent that the Russian army does, it risks creating new enemy defensive positions in the rubble of the others they’ve destroyed.
This is a lesson the Russian army has had to relearn multiple times, especially in Chechnya, and forgotten once more.
To overcome these problems, an army must rely upon its infantry and their officers’ initiative to carry the day. In the case of the Russian armed forces, with their centralized command system, plummeting morale and abysmal equipment standards, this isn’t possible.
R&I – TxP