Frontline dispatches from the besieged Donbas town of Severodonetsk depicted apocalyptic scenes of destroyed buildings and blood-soaked fields. Despite its lack of military significance, Ukrainian forces stood their ground, inflicting heavy casualties on their Russian enemies, depleting their ammunition and weaponry — and opening the way for two subsequent successful counter-offensives.
This “meat grinder” strategy was deployed this past summer in the eastern town, and military analysts say Kyiv has recently pursued the same tactic in north-east Ukraine around Soledar, whose capture by Russia on Friday may prove to be another pyrrhic victory for Moscow. .
The fall of the salt-mining town, where fighting has raged for more than two weeks, could make it harder for Ukraine to hold nearby Bakhmut, a city of symbolic importance whose seizure would bring Russia its first significant military success since the summer.
But Moscow’s capture of Soledar — and possibly eventually Bhakmut — could matter less than the losses inflicted on its forces in the fight.
One adviser to Ukraine’s defense ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Kyiv’s strategic approach to Soledar and Bakhmut was the same as in Severodonetsk. After that battle, Ukraine’s forces went on to rout Russian troops and recapture Kharkiv and Kherson.
Similarly, Ukraine’s soldiers, reinforced with western-supplied armor, could potentially take advantage of Russia’s manpower losses in Bakhmut to launch a powerful counter offensive, the adviser said.
“From a purely military perspective, a Severodonetsk 2.0 strategy is fine for Ukraine — as long as the fight costs the Russian forces disproportionately more than the Ukrainian army,” said Franz-Stefan Gady, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank – tank.
“That is the horrible and inhuman arithmetic of this fight. Unfortunately, it is the reality,” he added.
The Ukrainian reserve colonel Sergei Grabskyi told the Geopolitics Decanted podcast: “The reason to keep the Bakhmut line is to attract more and more Russian forces. . . chop them up and exhaust them. That may then create some options. . . for Ukrainian offensives [elsewhere].”
Russian forces have already suffered huge losses. According to Ukrainian special forces officer Taras Berezovets, who was recently in Soledar, casualties among the Wagner group mercenaries and elite VDV paratroopers who spearheaded the assault totaled several thousand.
That is in line with US estimates that 4,000 of Wagner’s 50,000 mercenaries have been killed on the Soledar-Bakhmut front line, with 10,000 injured.
Yevgeny Prigozhin, leader of the Wagner group, has acknowledged heavy losses. In a video released over the new year, the Russian warlord was filmed visiting a basement filled with bodies near the front line.
“Here lie Wagner fighters who died at the front. They are now being put in zinc coffins and they will return home,” he said.
But although defenders typically suffer fewer casualties than attackers, especially in urban settings, the fight is not one-way.
“The Ukrainians are taking losses every day,” said a western official. “Russia is calculating that Ukraine will run out of resources first. There are possibly tough times coming. The Ukrainians are not bulletproof.”
The battle for Soledar and Bakhmut has also absorbed thousands of Ukrainian soldiers who could be deployed elsewhere.
Konrad Muzyka of Rochan Consulting, a Poland-based military consultancy, estimated that as many as 12 Ukrainian brigades, equivalent to about 50,000 troops, had been sent to the Bakhmut front. The large number meant soldiers could be rotated to keep them fresh and maintain their combat readiness, Muzyka said, adding that this was “one of the lessons the Ukrainians learned after Severodonetsk”.
Ukrainian officials have described the waves of Russian soldiers launched into the Soledar and Bakhmut as leading to carnage. “The enemy literally steps on the corpses of his own soldiers, massively uses artillery, volley fire systems and mortars, covering even his own soldiers with fire,” Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Maliar, wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Monday.
But one factor could favor Moscow. In the fight for Severodonetsk, the Russian army was short of soldiers. Now it is not.
Moscow has mobilized 300,000 troops since September and preparations for a further mobilization were “very actively ongoing”, the western official said. Ukraine’s intelligence services said on Friday that Russia could be poised to draft 500,000 more personnel as part of a plan to “create an army of about 2mn”. Despite the troops’ inexperience, such a force could launch a major offensive later this year, Kyiv warned.
Meanwhile, Wagner mercenaries have been deployed in Soledar, freeing regular Russian units to operate elsewhere.
“That may be [Russia’s] whole point: to force Ukraine into a war of attrition,” Muzyka said. “While Russians ‘burn out’ their men, Ukrainians burn through their combat potential.”
One unknown is the replacement last week of General Sergei Surovikin, the commander appointed by Moscow to improve military performance after its forces were routed in Kharkiv province, with General Valery Gerasimov, the Russian army’s commander-in-chief.
Gerasimov has been ridiculed by Russian hardliners such as Prigozhin because he was responsible for implementing Russia’s failed full-scale invasion of Ukraine and attempt to capture Kyiv last February.
However, the commander of Ukraine’s armed forces, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, is known to respect Gerasimov as a military strategist — and as he told The Economist in a recent interview, the Russian forces “are not idiots”.
“Ideally [for Kyiv]Ukraine will be able to hold the line [around Bakhmut] with minimal forces and prepare for a spring counteroffensive,” said Anthony King, an urban war expert at Britain’s University of Warwick.
“But it could be that Ukrainian forces get fixed [around the city] instead,” he added. “Russia’s strategy may not be as stupid as it looks.”
Additional reporting by Polina Ivanova in Berlin