Russia and Ukraine's deadliest battle is starting to look like Stalingrad 'without the importance,' expert says

  • Russia and Ukraine both say Bakhmut, a city in Ukraine, is the site of their deadliest fighting.

  • The cost in lives on both sides appears disproportionate to the city's actual strategic value.

  • An expert on Russia's military likened it to Stalingrad, but without the same level of significance.

What if Stalingrad hadn't been named after Josef Stalin?

If that city hadn't been identified with Adolf Hitler's archnemesis, then perhaps the führer wouldn't have been quite so obsessed with capturing it — or at least not so obsessed as to lose 300,000 soldiers and any chance Nazi Germany had of winning World War II.

But Stalingrad was still an industrial city, a major-inland port on the Volga River that was a vital transportation artery for Soviet war production and home to a half-million people. Thus capturing or holding Stalingrad had some strategic value.

What exactly is the value of the city of Bakhmut?

Destroyed buildings in Bakhmut Ukraine
Destroyed buildings in Bakhmut on February 27.AFPTV/AFP via Getty Images

It is one of many cities in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region. Before Russia's invasion last year, Bakhmut had a population of just 71,000. It has a well-known winery, and a couple of highways pass through it.

But is Bakhmut an objective worth 30,000 Russian casualties and thousands of Ukrainian casualties whom Kyiv can ill afford to lose?

Western analysts are struggling to understand why both sides are pouring enormous resources — and prestige — into the Battle of Bakhmut.

"Both sides have really been going at it there," Dara Massicot, a senior policy researcher at the Rand Corporation think tank, said during a recent symposium.

"They've taken a lot of casualties. They've expended a lot of ammunition," Massicot added. "It's like becoming like a Stalingrad except for without the importance of Stalingrad."

Soviet troops in Stalingrad
Soviet assault troops in Stalingrad in 1942.Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R74190

Capturing Bakhmut would "give the Russians a launch point from which to drive northwest along the E40 highway to Slovyansk, or north to the town of Siversk," according to The Washington Post.

But to what end? "Russian forces have tried and failed to take these cities in the past," the Post said. Ukraine has already dug trench lines behind Bakhmut, so any Russian attempt to exploit the capture of Bakhmut would be hindered or blocked by fresh Ukrainian defenses.

Hitler may have been fixated on capturing Stalingrad because it was named after Stalin, but the Kremlin may be fixating on Bakhmut because of internal rivalries.

Instead of the regular Russian soldiers whose performance in Ukraine has been disappointing, the siege of Bakhmut has been waged largely by the Wagner Group, a Russian mercenary organization with deep ties to the Putin government.

Much like the Red Army's penal battalions in World War II, Wagner is using convicts as cannon fodder to wear down the Ukrainian defenders with haphazard attacks — launched with the threat of execution for those who retreat or surrender — and then sending in better-trained contract soldiers to finish the job.

Ukrainian medic in Bakhmut trench
A Ukrainian medic runs through a partially dug trench on the frontline outside Bakhmut on March 5.John Moore/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed to hold Bakhmut, warning that losing control of the city would give Russian forces an "open road" to other Ukrainian cities.

But why that city in particular? Ukraine would not lose the war if Bakhmut falls, as it is likely to now that Russia has captured most of the city and has almost cut the Ukrainian defenders' supply lines. In fact, there are indications that Ukrainian forces may already be withdrawing.

"If the Ukrainians decide to reposition in some of the terrain that's west of Bakhmut, I would not view that as an operational or a strategic setback," Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters Monday. "I think it's more of a symbolic value than it is a strategic and operational value."

War can be like children fighting over a toy: sometimes one side covets an objective simply because the other side wants it.

Ukrainians at humanitarian aid center in Bakhmut
Ukrainians at a humanitarian aid center in Bakhmut on February 27.DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images

For Russia, the failure to defeat Ukraine outright was humiliating, and Wagner's leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, likely sees victory as necessary to triumph in his feud with Russia's military leadership.

For Ukraine, now determined to recover all the land captured or annexed by Russia, denying Bakhmut to the enemy would provide a psychological boost, while ceding any territory could be a political and psychological setback.

Perhaps both sides should heed the lessons of Stalingrad.

While the battle is remembered as a crushing Nazi defeat, the Germans captured 90% of the city and Soviet troops were left clinging to a narrow sector along the Volga. Without Operation Uranus — the surprise Soviet counteroffensive that encircled Germany's sixth Army in November 1942 — the city would have eventually fallen.

Yet the Soviet Union would have kept fighting had Stalingrad been captured. Nazi Germany lost an entire army at Stalingrad and still had the strength to continue fighting for another two and a half years.

Bakhmut will eventually offer one side victory and the other defeat, but it won't end the war.

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy magazine, and other publications. He holds a master's in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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