Bloody clash over Bakhmut paying dividends for Kyiv, analyst says

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The bloody battle for Bakhmut earlier this year proved costly for the Ukrainian military, with some Western observers questioning why Kyiv would dedicate so many troops and so much of its precious firepower for a city of relatively little strategic value.

But Kyiv was playing the long game, according to Daniel Hoffman, a former senior CIA officer who once served as the agency’s Moscow station chief. Ukraine made a high-stakes bet, Mr. Hoffman said at a Washington Times Foundation event last week, that its fierce defense of the city would help drive a wedge between Russian President Vladimir Putin and the Wagner Group mercenaries at the front lines of Moscow’s war in Ukraine.

That gamble seemed to pay off late last month when Wagner Group leader Yevgeny Prigozhin launched a short-lived rebellion that shook the foundations of the Kremlin and represented a rare public challenge to Mr. Putin’s decades-long, unquestioned power in Russia.

That semi-coup came after Mr. Prigozhin said he’d lost more than 20,000 of his men in the battle for Bakhmut, and he blamed Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other Russian officials for failing to give his men what they needed to take the city. A drive by the Russian brass to bring Wagner Group forces formally under their command appears to have inspired Mr. Prigozhin’s abortive rebellion last month.

In short, the gamble by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy seems to have paid off.

“The Biden administration, going back to March of 2023, was publicly stating that Ukraine could withdraw from Bakhmut and … that they wouldn’t face any tactical or strategic cost for doing that,” Mr. Hoffman said at this week’s “Washington Brief,” a monthly forum hosted by The Washington Times Foundation.

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“But Zelenskyy made the decision to stand and to fight because Zelenskyy realized this was the opportunity for Ukraine to drive a wedge between the Wagner mercenaries who were on the front lines, cannon fodder, in that bloody battle in Bakhmut, and Russia’s Ministry of Defense. And that was the turning point, that was the spark I think that lit this insurrection” by Mr. Prigozhin and his men.

Ukraine’s ability to sustain the war faces another crucial test this week as Mr. Zelenskyy travels to Vilnius, Lithuania for a two-day NATO summit with President Biden and other alliance leaders. At the very top of the agenda will be Ukraine’s hopes of eventually joining NATO and how long Western leaders are willing to support Kuiv in a war that has already lasted nearly 15 months with no quick resolution in sight.

President Biden, in an interview with CNN that aired Sunday, bluntly said Ukraine was “not yet ready” for NATO membership and floated the model of Israel — a non-NATO country that has long enjoyed heavy military support from Washington — as a potential model for Ukraine.

“I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” Mr. Biden said, noting that immediately granting Kyiv membership could put NATO in the middle of a shooting war with Russia.

Ukraine is expected to receive more extensive “enabling security guarantees” when the NATO leaders meet Tuesday and Wednesday, but Mr. Hoffman argued the Zelenskyy government already improved its bargaining position and its battlefield odds with the controversial decision to press the fight for Bakhmust earlier this year.

“That was the key strategic benefit of fighting in Bakhmut,” said Mr. Hoffman, who writes a regular opinion column for The Washington Times. “And yes, Ukraine lost many of its soldiers, but the fight was worth it. Because now Wagner has been taken out of Russia’s military formation.”

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Indeed, Ukraine lost thousands of its own troops in the fight for Bakhmut and ultimately lost nearly all of the city to the Russian side, which was led by Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner fighters. But Ukraine held on to the outskirts of the city and Mr. Prigozhin in early June said his troops no longer had full control of the city.

Mr. Prigozhin called the failure to hold all of Bakhmut a “shameful” display by the Russian military proper, under the command of Mr. Shoigu and Russian Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov.

Just a few weeks later, Mr. Prigozhin launched his insurrection, seeking to drive Mr. Shoigu and Gen. Gerasimov from their posts. He even appeared willing to launch an assault on Moscow to achieve his aims. He eventually struck a deal with the Kremlin after an 11th-hour mediation by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, with his Wagner fighters given the opportunity to either return home or formally join the Russian military. The Kremlin also dropped its criminal charges against Mr. Prigozhin.

While NATO leaders ponder the ability of Ukraine to sustain a long war with its larger neighbor, Russia’s apparent willingness to fight a years-long war carries its own risks, according to Mr. Hoffman, the former CIA officer. He said that while Mr. Putin could escape the Wagner rebellion with little immediate damage to his regime, he faces growing peril the longer the conflict drags on.

“The longer Russia carries on with this war, the weaker Putin gets. The weaker he gets, the more he feels like he has to carry on with the war,” Mr. Hoffman said. “At some point there will be a breaking point. Autocracies are brittle. Russia will break. And the big challenge for our intelligence community is to determine what happens next.”

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