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What does the fall of Bakhmut in Ukraine really mean?

New realities on the ground could take NATO's involvement to the next level. A Q&A with Anatol Lieven & George Beebe.

Analysis | Europe

Reports indicate that after months of fighting, the Russians have taken the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. This comes at a time when world leaders are pledging more aid and weapons — including sophisticated, American-made F-16s — to Ukraine in hopes that its armed forces will be able to mount a much anticipated counteroffensive this spring.

I asked the two top Russia experts at the Quincy Institute — Anatol Lieven and George Beebe — for their candid takes on what this apparent victory for Russia really means, and how it might change the war’s landscape. 

Additionally, what might we read into the transfer of F-16s to Ukraine, and does it risk escalation into a broader NATO-Russia conflict, given the new facts on the ground? Where does that leave those who would like to move away from fighting and to a ceasefire?

Kelley Vlahos: Okay, so reports today say that after many months the Russians have taken over the city of Bakhmut. What does this mean tactically and strategically for both sides? 

George Beebe: Sure. Well, I think the real question of the significance of this victory is not going to be apparent for quite some time. I think a lot of military experts have argued that Bakhmut in and of itself is not strategically important, that it's not likely to lead to some breakthrough for the Russians, enabling, you know, a rapid advance to more Ukrainian cities, or encirclement, or an ability to break Ukraine's defenses all together. I don't think that's going to happen. 

The bigger question is whether Ukraine's decision to basically mount an all-out defense of Bakhmut, despite its lack of strategic significance, is going to result in crippling its ability to mount a new counteroffensive elsewhere in Ukraine, something that they've long planned and long been talking publicly about. And I think a lot of Western military experts, including Pentagon officials, have long been urging the Ukrainians simply to mount an orderly withdrawal from Bakhmut to preserve their men and munitions for use in more important battles in the future. 

But Zelensky essentially overruled that advice and decided that they were going to send more troops — including some of Ukraine's best troops — to try to keep Bakhmut. He made quite a theatrical display of this. You recall when he came to Washington last December, he came carrying a flag from Bakhmut taken from the defenders there, which he quite ceremonially gifted to the U.S. Congress as a symbol of Ukraine's determination to hold the city and beat back Russia's forces. Well, all that failed. Now it's clear that everything that they put into defending it ended up being wasted, and what the larger implications are for Ukraine's ability to push Russia back in remains to be seen, but my guess is that there are a lot of heads that are shaking in Washington today wondering what Zelensky was thinking. 

Anatol Lieven: Yes, I agree with all of that. What I would add is we can't be sure how much damage has been done to the Russian Armed Forces through this long, long battle of attrition. They have certainly suffered heavily as well. I suppose the one key question is quite unrelated to the fighting itself. It's what this will do for the prestige of (Wagner Group head Yevgeny Prigozhin) and the Wagner Group. Will this really strengthen his hand in Russian internal politics? Because of course, it's very amusing this phrase from Wagner that they are going to hand over Bakhmut to the Russian army, as if basically they were an allied force, not under Russian military command at all. And as a very gracious and generous gesture, they will now give it to the Russians, which is a really striking statement. And of course, [it] will pour coals on the fire of anger in the Russian Defense Ministry at Prigozhin.

George: Yeah, I agree with that. And I would add that Putin, in announcing the fall of Bakhmut, actually named Wagner, and I don't believe that this is something that he has done before. So he's giving them some public credit in all of this, and I think he's trying to walk a very fine line between using Wagner and Prigozhin for Russia's broader national purposes, while not at the same time creating a potential political rival or somebody, you know, the man in the white horse whose political influence could get out of control. So he's trying to strike a balance there, and it's not clear how that's gonna play out either.

Kelley: So all of this comes at a time when the United States has paved the way for the transfer of advanced fighters, the F-16s, and the G7 leadership just committed more aid and weapons to Ukraine. Do you perceive there being more NATO involvement now, to reverse what appears to be a Russian victory, as symbolic as that victory might be? Does this open the way for more escalation?

Anatol: Well, yes, I think undoubtedly, that is NATO's and America's intention. The question is whether it will work. And also, of course, where the Ukrainians attack because, you know, most of the expectation has been that they will attack towards the Sea of Azov in an effort to cut the Russian position in two, but having signaled that so much, they've given the Russians lots and lots and lots of time to prepare. And satellite images show several lines of Russian defense. On the other hand, if (Ukraine) tried to counterattack again in the Donbass they could simply, you know, enmesh themselves in yet another battle of attrition with no breakthrough at all. 

So certainly, NATO is trying to strengthen the Ukrainians, and if, of course, the Russians can hold the Ukrainians and they don't break through, then there won't be so much of an incentive for Russia to escalate. But the problem is, if NATO's support works, and Ukrainians really do break through, then I think there is every chance that Russia will escalate, and what that will lead to we do not know.

George: Yeah, I agree. We are in an escalation dynamic with the Russians. We have been for quite some time. Every Russian advance or escalatory step is matched on the West’s part and vice-versa. I think one of the things about the F-16 transfer, and it's still not clear exactly how many of these planes the Ukrainians are ready to get and how quickly they're going to come, but they're difficult planes to operate for the Ukrainians without extensive Western support. They require enormous amounts of maintenance, and they require long and relatively well maintained runways. And the Ukrainians have very few of those. So they are either going to have to upgrade existing runways in Ukraine in order to accommodate these aircraft, or they're gonna have to fly them out of NATO country air bases. 

Now, either one of those is problematic because if they upgrade the runways, the Russians are going to see that. So they will essentially be signaling to the Russians where they ought to be attacking in order to cripple Ukraine's ability to fly these aircraft. And if they operate out of NATO air bases, then the Russians are going to have a real decision to make as to whether they strike at the bases from which these aircraft are flying. And in any case, the Ukrainians can't maintain them. They're going to have to be shipping these things back and forth to NATO countries for maintenance, or the West is going to have to put Western maintenance crews in Ukraine to do the maintenance there. So this is, I think, an act that is fraught with escalatory potential. 

The other thing I would say is my guess — I have no evidentiary basis for this judgment, but it's just a strong suspicion — (that) the more the Ukrainians run out of air defense missiles, the greater the pressure has grown in the West to provide Ukraine with F-16’s. We just don't have the missiles to supply them. And the only way we can make sure that the Ukrainians are are not defenseless against Russian air attacks is to provide this kind of fighter aircraft support there. So I think this is actually a bad sign about the West's assessment of the state of Ukrainian air defenses.

Kelley: That's pretty scary. I mean, in your assessment, both of you, are we any closer to talking about a ceasefire, or are we much further away from it today as we were say, yesterday, after the news of the F-16s and the fall of Bakhmut to the Russians? What is your confidence level that there actually could be some diplomacy in the near future?

Anatol: Well, I mean, the G7 statement, you know, went out of its way to demand total Russian withdrawal. Now it didn't say specifically from all Ukrainian territory since 2014. But certainly that was not an encouraging sign for any kind of compromise. But in the end, we will have to simply see what happens on the battlefield. Because we've heard repeatedly suggestions in recent weeks and months that if Ukraine fails to win a major victory this year, then present levels of aid cannot be sustained. George was absolutely right when it comes to our inability to provide anti aircraft missiles, air defense missiles. But in the end it is a war, and developments on the battlefield will be the decisive factor — or the lack of developments on the battlefield.

Kelley: George, any last thoughts on that?

George: I think that at this point, the sides are very far apart. And neither Ukraine nor Russia is inclined to compromise. And the G7 statement and the decision in Washington to provide the F-16s do not encourage me to believe that the United States is anywhere close to trying to find a compromise way out of this. The one encouraging thing on peace is that the other parts of the world — China, Brazil, the Holy See — apparently are more intent than ever on trying to find a way out of this.

Kelley: Thank you.

Wagner mercenary group fighters wave flags of Russia and Wagner group on top of a building in an unidentified location, in the course of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, in this still image obtained from a video released on May 20, 2023, along with a statement by Russian mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin about taking full control of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut. Press service of "Concord"/Handout via REUTERS
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