The Bloodbath at Bakhmut: Why Russia Can’t Win

EVERY WAR HAS ITS EPIC BATTLES — Gettysburg in 1863, with 51,000 casualties — and now the world watches in horror as Ukraine and Russia suffer thousands of casualties in Bakhmut.

EVERY WAR HAS ITS TURNING POINTS — the siege of Leningrad in 1942 — and this war also will have a turning point, most likely in eastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have stalled amid enormous losses of men and equipment.

AMAZINGLY, UKRAINE STILL HOLDS most of central Bakhmut, but a withdrawal is possible. Even if Ukraine retreats, where would Russia go next? Even the Wagner Group mercenaries are out of gas, and poorly trained Russian conscripts lack the cunning, the arms and the morale of the Ukrainian forces.

WE HAVE ARGUED FOR OVER A YEAR that the key factor in this war is troop morale. Quite simply, Russian forces are unwilling to die for Vladimir Putin, while Ukrainian troops are willing to die for their country.

THERE’S NO REAL STRATEGIC REASON to make Bakhmut the turning point in the war, but both sides have sacrificed so much that the ultimate winner will claim a psychological victory. But the fall of Bakhmut would be a pyrrhic victory for Russia, which will stall after Bakhmut, left with only a minor foothold in the Donetsk region.

READING THE BRILLIANT BATTLEFIELD dispatches in the New York Times, it becomes clear that Ukrainians are prepared to sacrifice until the last man falls. Conversely, there are reports of Russian troops — sent to nearly certain death in trench assaults — are turning their fire on their Russian commanders.

AS MORE SOPHISTICATED WEAPONS from the West arrive in Ukraine this spring, the Russians are likely to be driven back. Putin may consider the use of weapons of mass destruction, but leaders of China and India reportedly have told him that such an escalation would cross a red line that would make Moscow a global outcast.

PUTIN HAS BADLY MISCALCULATED in anticipating a dwindling resolve in the West. NATO has held together, and more aid is coming from the U.S. It’s true that American public opinion has cooled on supporting the war, but there are enough hawkish Republicans — Lindsey Graham, Mitch McConnell, etc. — who will side with President Biden. Virtually all of the Democrats will stick with Biden.

BOTTOM LINE: We still believe Russia cannot win this war, and we continue to believe that Russian generals know they can’t win. Perhaps the slaughter in Bakhmut will be the turning point; Ukraine will win the tank war and and will launch a counter-offensive this spring. A turning point will become clear.

A TRUCE AND NEGOTIATIONS COULD BEGIN BY SUMMER, with Ukraine getting its bombed-out east back as both sides argue bitterly about Crimea. Ukrainian leaders will never say this publicly, but privately they are resigned to not getting all of Crimea back. But Kyiv will get its victory: a humiliation of Russia, which will regret its invasion for decades to come.

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