A week ago, a West Point classmate and I were discussing urban warfare. As most discussions on the topic usually do, ours gravitated to the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, the most dominant feature on the landscape of urban warfare history. A few days later, the New York Times published an article about the ongoing fight between Ukrainian defenders in the city of Bakhmut and the Russian forces that have been trying to dislodge them for months. The article contained a graphic that immediately brought me back to maps of Stalingrad circa November to December of 1942 we had studied back at school. The similarities between the two positions raise an important question: Is it time for the Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut to heed the lessons of Stalingrad? More specifically, has the time come to cede control of the city to Russian forces and live to fight another day? The facts of the situation facing the Ukrainians suggest that it is.
First, we must acknowledge the importance of Bakhmut not only as key terrain militarily but also as a strategic symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Much like Stalingrad was, Bakhmut itself is a somewhat minor city in terms of population and size, but its geographic position is at the crossroads of two main supply routes (the M03 north to Slovyansk and the T0504 west to Kostyantynivka) making it a key logistical node for further Russian advance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his defense staff were quite right to pour resources into the defense of this position. Much like the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad in 1942, Ukraine’s forces turned the city into a rock that broke the wave of Russian advance in eastern Ukraine. Their stalwart defense transformed Bakhmut from a key piece of operational terrain into a key piece of strategically symbolic terrain. For every minute the defenders held each meter of ground the city’s status as an emblem of Ukrainian defiance against the aggressors grew. Zelenskyy has called the city a “fortress of [Ukraine’s] morale.” But all key terrain has a selling point.
While the Ukrainian forces’ dogged defense thus far has emulated that of the Soviet defenders in 1942, giving ground only to fall back to more entrenched positions, at Stalingrad German forces did slowly manage to seize the majority of the city, making them the defenders against the Soviet counterattack that eventually encircled them. And it is from the follies of the German High Command at this critical juncture of the battle that Ukrainian leaders should learn: there comes a time when the wisest decision is to leave while you still can. If maps openly available to the public are accurate, the lines of communication to Bakhmut are at their breaking point. The M03 has already been seized and the T0504 either has been seized or has Russian forces within a hundred meters of it bringing any logistical or maneuver movement along it within range of direct fire from Russian armored elements. To the north, the last remaining alternate supply route, the narrow O0506, remains open but has Russian forces likely within several hundred meters. Much like the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, the Ukrainian defenders are rapidly nearing encirclement.
Some others may be more optimistic and say that the Ukrainians should hold out until the German-supplied Leopard tanks and their Ukrainian crews that recently finished training can be brought to bear in the summer offensive. This is the same situation that the 6th Army leaders faced in 1942 as their own encirclement neared. They were promised reinforcements that would push back the advancing Soviet forces. Only they came too late, and an entire army of experienced veterans was lost along with the battle. It could be weeks or even months until the logistical support and force organization required to integrate this much-heralded batch of Western equipment into Ukrainian formations is complete. Bakhmut may only have days until it is encircled.
It is imperative that Zelenskyy not fall for the intellectual trap that the German leadership did. He cannot afford to misconstrue the symbolic importance of Bakhmut for the military importance that the experience and manpower of the city’s defenders will have for the greater Ukrainian war effort. He will need those forces more than ever if the summer offensive is to be successful—as well as for the future defense of cities in western Donetsk (Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and Kostyantynivka). While I sincerely hope that my dire prediction will be proven wrong, some things are too important to be left to fate. Bakhmut has been the keystone of Ukraine’s defense in the Donbas. It was a meatgrinder that chewed up Russian formations, costing them dearly in blood, treasure, and willpower. It was the bastion of the spirit of Ukrainian resistance, filling both the citizenry and warfighters alike with the hope that despite the forces against them they may see their country whole again one day. But it cannot be the hill upon which the hopes for Ukraine’s future are left to perish. To the valiant defenders of Bakhmut the only thing that can be said is well done, but it is time to live to fight another day and ensure that your sacrifices have not been in vain.
Gaelan Hanlon is a 2014 graduate of the United States Military Academy. He holds a master of arts in global security from Arizona State University where he concentrated on irregular warfare approaches to great power competition.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: dpsu.gov.ua, via Wikimedia Commons
Zelensky and his backers appear to fear an army if not national morale collapse, if Putin's Bakhmut "Stalinist Reductionism"* prevails, and it should be remembered that more Red Army than Wehrmacht troops died at Stalingrad which was nonetheless the turning point battle of the Russian Front.
Additionally, note this from Putin's revealing 18Jun20 National Interest article:
"And today, the simple and great in its essence lines of Alexander Tvardovsky's poem "I was killed near Rzhev …" dedicated to the participants of the bloody and brutal battle of the Great Patriotic War in the center of the Soviet-German front line are astonishing. Only in the battles for Rzhev and the Rzhevsky Salient from October 1941 to March 1943, the Red Army lost 1,154, 698 people, including wounded and missing."
(See David Glantz's revelatory book about the Rzhev abbatoir, Zhukov's Greatest Defeat.)
Those Red Army troops were *expended* to prevent the Wehrmacht from redeploying more panzers to rescue the 6th Army at that moment.
The death ratio – which we won't know for months maybe years – is just one bottomline of any battle of attrition (like Stalingrad or Okinawa).
My free/educational print-and-play Rzhev battle game's mapboard:
*Regarding Stalinist Reductionism, it is a term I coined playing my son – now a brilliant aerospace engineer – chess. If you get a central pawn or sufficiently strong piece up in the game and then trade equally – body for body – you end with the winning edge.
And so Robert quickly learned to get a single pawn up in our games and then (gleefully) beat me to death with it. (In 1996 he was the junior champion back in Alaska and then after moving down tied for 2nd in the statewide Illinois high school age individuals tournament – he had the top-seeded ultimate winner beaten twice, but didn't see it … I believe distracted by my early arrival back at the tournament site to pick him up.)
My free/educational print-and-play Stalingrad city battle game's mapboard:
Oh, and I have a littler/faster Stalingrad city game, Postcard Stalingrad, which anyone is free to print off en masse in postcard 4×6 or 5×8 size/format, to mail/give to family and friends, at www.CoatneyHistory.com/PostcardStalingrad.htm
My Stalingrad city games include a/the little (Zaitsev vs. Koenig) sniper(s) duel showcased in the excellent feature film Enemy at the Gates, starring Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, and Ed Harris.
First and foremost a game and a topic about a battle in real life are two different things. Ukrainian fighters stand their ground, albeit at a great cost. You spoke about something which I thought was irrelevant.
sides as a major industrial and transport hub on the Volga River. Whoever controlled Stalingrad would have access to the oil fields of the Caucasus and would gain control of the Volga. Germany, already operating on dwindling fuel supplies, focused its efforts on moving deeper into Soviet territory and taking the oil fields at any cost. On 4 August, the Germans launched an offensive by using the 6th Army and elements of the 4th Panzer Army. The attack was supported by intense Luftwaffe bombing that reduced much of the city to rubble. The battle degenerated into house-to-house fighting as both sides poured reinforcements into the city. By mid-November, the Germans, at great cost, had pushed the Soviet defenders back into narrow zones along the west bank of the river.
Next time know the facts Stalingrad is in past. Such references. Kk
Luftwaffe bombing is indeed in both games, if you had bothered to look at them.
Not our war. Not our country. Keep the USA out of foreign wars. Don't take sides in other country's battles.
AGREED, about *this* war, anyway.
I grew up Presbyterian, but Pope Francis was absolutely – and bravely – right when he said this latest (and by far most dangerous) neocon war/tragedy – holocaust – was provoked and could have been prevented.
It will probably be our worst, most fundamental strategic mistake for this entire 21st Century.
How the next administration undoes this will have to be verging on miraculous.
Our neocon foreign policy – appointed back into power January 2021 – isn't just a train wreck, it's a *wrecking train*. Our heads are far too far up war-eager Europe's … rivers … to the neglect and increasing anger of the rest of the world.
It's time to ask the defenders do they want to sacrifice themselves to kill more Russians. If not take the path out, reconstitute, and attack immediately, before Russia has a chance to do the same.
naaa. I am not gonna wait until dictators burst our planet into particles. 20 years of inaction completely corrupted international institutions and the the international law. We now have a line of dictators wrestling against smaller countries and enjoying impunity in the French Alps.
And by the way, this is your war, according to the Budapest Memorandum, the US should have provided support to Ukraine prior to war, but it did not. Do not be surprised when American securities point downhill. America's debt is secured by trust, which has quickly evaporated and painful to restore. – Russian guy who escaped Putin's tyranny.
An interesting post. Here is an alternative view: what if Bakhmut is in fact irrelevant? What if the Ukrainians are in fact not "defending" it, and the supply lines don't matter because the Ukrainians are (mostly) not there? Could it be that the Ukrainians are just sending some light disposable cannon-fodder infantry into the city proper just to keep up appearances, and as the Russians attack the city they are killed by the main Ukrainian forces 10-ish miles to the west? What if the Ukrainians are just using the city as a killing zone to whack attacking Russians using artillery and missile fire from the real troops that are not in Bakhmut?
Is the Russian leadership stupid enough to fall for this? Maybe. Or maybe the Russians are playing along, sending some of their own disposable cannon fodder troops to assault the largely irrelevant city, drawing the fire of the real Ukrainian units to the west, and then targeting them?
What if Bakhmut is just a wasted square mile of rubble that is only an excuse for a long-range artillery duel?
Of course, the United States is being invaded by the third world because the rich want cheap labor, so the whole Ukraine thing is in a practical sense irrelevant to me, but interesting to speculate nonetheless.