The United States is pressuring Ukraine to loosen its hold on the terrain around Bakhmut as both Russia and Ukraine are gearing up for spring offensives, according to experts and media reports.
Russian forces are making incremental gains around the eastern city of Bakhmut, and while analysts don’t see the territory as strategically important, it has achieved symbolic significance for both sides, CNN reported.
The U.S. wants Ukraine to focus on the southern battlefront, where it can effectively employ newly supplied Western armor capabilities, as Ukraine needs to prepare to counter escalating attacks in the spring.
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“It’s a race right now to see who can gain an advantage in the winter,” said Lt. Col. Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities.
Experts disagreed over which side holds the advantage, as neither has achieved a major breakthrough since Ukraine recaptured Kherson in November.
“Currently Ukraine has the momentum and the morale on the battlefield. However, Russia has been able to hold the line and stop any significant Ukrainian advancements,” said Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.
“At the moment, Russia has a slight edge, especially in the Donbas, but theater-wide, the situation is largely static,” Davis said.
Kyiv acknowledged its forces had abandoned Soledar, near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, Wednesday, after days of disputing Russia’s claims and statements from the private Wagner Group to have captured the town, Reuters reported. Fighting over Bakhmut evolved into a brutal war of attrition over months, consuming massive amounts of artillery ammunition and manpower where Russia has the advantage, according to CNN.
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Changes in control are made by the yard in Bakhmut, but losses on both sides are heavy, a senior U.S. military official said on Jan. 23, declining to provide an updated estimate of total Ukrainian casualties.
“That success has made the rest of that defensive line vulnerable, and RU is now attacking Seversk and Bahkmut; both are in danger of falling in the coming few weeks,” Davis said. Gaining the territory would be a PR victory for the Russians and set the stage for a future offensive, he added.
Representatives from the National Security Council, Department of State and Department of Defense recommended to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that he shift resources away from the artillery battle in Bakhmut and prioritize the more mobile mechanized units in a private meeting in late January, CNN reported, citing sources familiar with the discussions. The latest deliveries of Western armored vehicles are meant to encourage that transition, they said.
Also on Wednesday, Ukraine’s partners announced an effort to supply the military with Western-made main battle tanks, heavy-duty armored vehicles that experts — even Russian ones — say are far superior to the Soviet-era systems both Russia and Ukraine have been operating. The announcement of 31 U.S.-manufactured M1 Abrams — enough for one Ukrainian tank battalion — and two battalions’ worth of German-origin Leopard 2s followed a pledged delivery of 14 Challenger 2s from the United Kingdom.
Officials say the tanks will give Ukraine the tools it needs to improve maneuverability and force back Russian lines.
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“The importance of maneuver weapons isn’t just to give Ukraine strength now to regain territory but as a deterrent against future Russian attacks,” a State Department official familiar with Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s thinking told The Washington Post. “Maneuver is the future.”
But while Western tanks may signal a win for Ukraine today, American tanks will come new from the production lines and require months to arrive, senior officials told the DCNF. They said the announcement signifies the U.S.’ long-term commitment to Ukraine’s defenses, even after the Pentagon argued that American tanks will not pay off for Ukraine on the battlefield.
Sending the Abrams is a signal that the U.S. remains the “primary security guarantor for Europe” and backer of Western support for Ukraine, Dan Caldwell, vice president for foreign policy at philanthropic organization Stand Together, told the DCNF.
Supplying Abrams tanks to Ukraine could also draw in more U.S. support in the form of contractors and active duty soldiers stationed near Ukraine to help maintain the incredibly sensitive, complex platform, he added.
NATO Secretary Jens Stoltenberg advocated continued military assistance to Ukraine at the World Economic Forum gathering on Jan. 19 while acknowledging that the war would likely culminate in some kind of negotiated solution.
“Weapons are the way to peace,” he said. “What happens around the negotiating table is totally dependent on the strength on the battlefield.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be planning a second mobilization of 200,000 men for the spring after calling up 300,000 in September, Western officials told CNN.
How the war plays out in the coming months depends on the speed at which Ukrainian troops learn and the effectiveness of Russia’s mobilization, Coffey said.
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Ukrainians need to stave off further Russian advances while gathering strength for a new offensive and training on new Western equipment, including Patriot missile defense systems, Leopards and Challengers, Davis explained.
They must also prepare for the possibility of Russia mounting a forward push from Belarus, potentially involving Belarusian troops, according to Coffey.
Zelenskyy remains reluctant to abandon Bakhmut, people familiar with his thinking told CNN. The region has become a symbol for the Ukranians’ resolve to oust Russian troops and could create an opening to reclaim the Donbas, which fell to the Russians early in the war.
“It’s going to be a bloody spring and summer, with both sides wanting to conduct offensives and neither interested in negotiated settlements,” Davis said.
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