September 17, 2023

Special report of the Institute for the Study of War:  Ukraine’s Operations in Bakhmut Have Kept Russian Reserves Away from the South

Institute for the Study of War

Russian Offensive Campaign Assessment, Special Edition

By Daniel Mealie, George Barros, and Frederick W. Kagan

Key Takeaway: Ukrainian forces are celebrating the liberation of two small towns south of Bakhmut, but Ukraine’s entire effort first to defend and now to conduct counter-offensive operations around Bakhmut has been the subject of much unwarranted criticism. Ukraine’s defensive and counteroffensive operations in the Bakhmut area since summer 2022 are an operationally sound undertaking that has fixed a large amount of Russian combat power that would otherwise have been available to reinforce Russian defenses in southern Ukraine. Elements of two of Russia’s four Airborne (VDV) divisions and three of Russia’s four VDV separate brigades are currently defending the Bakhmut area. This significant Ukrainian achievement has helped prevent Russia from creating a large mobile VDV operational reserve that could have been used to stop the main Ukrainian counteroffensive effort in Zaporizhia Oblast. Continued large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive efforts around Bakhmut are necessary to keep Russian forces fixed in that area, as the likely recent redeployment of a detachment of one VDV separate brigade from near Bakhmut to southern Ukraine shows how eager the Russians are to recoup the combat power that the Ukrainian counteroffensive around Bakhmut is fixing there.

Ukraine’s defensive operations in Bakhmut drew elements of at least one Russian Airborne Forces (VDV) division and fixed them near Bakhmut in summer 2022. Elements of the 106th Airborne Division were reportedly operating in Bakhmut as early as June 2022. Former Russian officer Igor Girkin reported that the 137th Airborne Regiment of the 106th Airborne Division had been operating in Bakhmut alongside Wagner forces since the “beginning” of Wagner’s assault on Bakhmut, presumably in June 2022 when Wagner’s participation in major attacks to capture the town began.[1] The Ukrainian General Staff reported that elements of the 137th Airborne Regiment were already operating near Bakhmut as of September 14, 2022.[2]

The Russian military committed elements of the 106th Airborne Division to augment the Wagner Group’s offensive in Bakhmut no later than December 2022. Combat footage posted in December 2022 and January 2023 shows likely elements of the 106th Airborne Division engaged in combat in Bakhmut.[3] A Russian milblogger reported that unspecified VDV forces conducted joint operations with the Wagner Group in the Bakhmut area on December 27, 2022.[4] The Russian Ministry of Defense confirmed Russian Airborne Forces’ participation in the battle of Bakhmut – very likely including elements of the 106th Airborne Division – in January 2023.[5]

The Russian military deployed additional VDV units to Bakhmut in early- and mid-May 2023 shortly before Wagner Group Financier Yevgeny Prigozhin’s announcement that Wagner forces would withdraw from Bakhmut. The tempo of combat in Bakhmut decreased in April and early May 2023 as Russian forces completed their capture of the city. Wagner Group financier Yevgeny Prigozhin declared victory in Bakhmut on May 20 and announced his intent to withdraw Wagner forces from the town on May 25.[6] Prigozhin announced on May 25 that the Wagner Group began handing over its positions in Bakhmut to the Russian Ministry of Defense and claimed that Wagner would entirely withdraw from the town on June 1, 2023.[7]

Additional VDV forces deployed to Bakhmut before and during this transitional period. Senior Ukrainian defense officials reported that the Russian military deployed several unspecified VDV units to Bakhmut in mid-May 2023.[8] A Russian soldier’s obituary confirms that elements of the 31st Separate Air Assault Brigade deployed to Bakhmut – likely from the Svatove-Kreminna line – no later than May 14, 2023.[9] Ukrainian sources reported that elements of Russia’s 98th Airborne Division deployed to Bakhmut in late March and mid-April.[10]Scattered small elements of the 98th Airborne Division were reportedly operating near Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, and Dibrova, Luhansk Oblast, as of May 2023.[11] Combat footage and Russian reports confirmed that elements of Russia’s 98th Airborne Division redeployed to Bakhmut no later than June 2023.[12] Elements of the 11th and 83rd Separate Air Assault Brigades likely deployed to Bakhmut around this time, and their participation in combat in Bakhmut was confirmed in June and July 2023.[13]

Ukrainian forces began counteroffensive operations against Bakhmut almost immediately following Wagner’s withdrawal, causing the Russians to maintain VDV forces already there and to deploy additional VDV reinforcements to Bakhmut. Ukrainian forces conducted sustained tactical counterattacks in Bakhmut and around its flanks following Wagner’s capture of the city around May 20.[14]Ukraine launched a significant counteroffensive against Bakhmut on June 4, the same day it began its major counteroffensive in Zaporizhia, and conducted sustained and reinvigorated offensive actions near Bakhmut’s northern and southern flanks throughout June, July, and August.[15]

These sustained Ukrainian attacks near Bakhmut fixed considerable VDV forces in Bakhmut. The Russian military had committed elements of the 11th, 31st, and 83rd Separate Air Assault Brigades to the defense of the town by July 2023.[16] The only VDV separate brigade not committed to Bakhmut was the 45th Guards SPETSNAZ Brigade, which is a special forces unit directly controlled by the Russian General Staff.[17] The Russian military would not have deployed and retained this large quantity of VDV forces in Bakhmut had Ukrainian forces not launched large-scale and effective counteroffensive operations that threatened to retake the town that Russian forces had seized at enormous cost. Russian sources credited elements of the 98th Airborne Division – likely elements of the 217th Airborne Regiment – with defeating Ukrainian attacks on Bakhmut’s northern flank in July 2023.[18] Elements of the 106th Airborne Division’s 137th Airborne Regiment remained in Bakhmut from September 2022 to September 2023 without any observed evidence of a rotation.[19]  

Ukraine’s continued counteroffensive actions in Bakhmut since June 2023 have fixed elements of two of Russia’s four VDV divisions and three of the VDV’s four separate brigades, dramatically reducing the VDV’s ability to redeploy more forces laterally to reinforce the southern front. The fact that the Russian command redeployed these VDV forces to hold Bakhmut shows that they would have been available to shift to Zaporizhia Oblast to defend against the main Ukrainian counteroffensive efforts there had Ukrainian operations not fixed them in the Bakhmut area.

(For full report:  https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/ukraine%E2%80%99s-operations-bakhmut-have-kept-russian-reserves-away-south)

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