September 17, 2023
Ukraine’s Operations in Bakhmut Have Kept Russian Reserves Away from the South
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. The Ukrainian General Staff reported that elements of the 137th Airborne Regiment were already operating near Bakhmut as of September 14, 2022.
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. A Russian milblogger reported that unspecified VDV forces conducted joint operations with the Wagner Group in the Bakhmut area on December 27, 2022. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. Ukrainian sources reported that elements of Russia’s 98th Airborne Division deployed to Bakhmut in late March and mid-April. Scattered small elements of the 98th Airborne Division were reportedly operating near Vuhledar, Donetsk Oblast, and Dibrova, Luhansk Oblast, as of May 2023. Combat footage and Russian reports confirmed that elements of Russia’s 98th Airborne Division redeployed to Bakhmut no later than June 2023. 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.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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.
Ukraine’s sustained operations near Bakhmut have fixed the following VDV elements near Bakhmut:
Both of the 106th Airborne Division’s maneuver regiments likely remain near Bakhmut as of early September 2023.
- One of the 98th Airborne Division’s two maneuver regiments likely remains fixed in Bakhmut as of early September 2023.
- The 217th Regiment’s last reported whereabouts are in Bakhmut as of early August. ISW has not observed evidence of the 217th Regiment redeploying as of this publication.
- Elements of the 11th Separate Air Assault Brigade remained in the Bakhmut area as of early September 2023.
- Elements of the 31st Separate Air Assault Brigade remained in the Bakhmut area as of early September 2023.
- Elements of the 83rd Separate Air Assault Brigade remained in the Bakhmut area as of early September 2023.
The Russian military redeployed elements of two VDV units that the Russian command had not committed to Bakhmut to support Russian defenses in Zaporizhia Oblast. The only VDV forces not engaged in Bakhmut by June-July 2023 were elements of the 76th Air Assault Division operating near Kreminna, the 331st Airborne Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division also operating near Kreminna, the 7th Air Assault Division operating on left (east) bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson Oblast, and the 45th Guards SPETSNAZ Brigade, which had already been committed to defending southern Ukraine near Mala Tokmachka in early June 2023. (The 45th Brigade’s last known location before appearing in Zaporizhia Oblast in June 2023 was in Kherson Oblast in October 2022).
Russia redeployed the 7th Air Assault Division and elements of the 76th Air Assault Division to Robotyne in August. The 7th Air Assault Division’s subordinate 56th, 108th, and 247th Air Assault Regiments remain active along the southern front as of early September 2023. The 76th Air Assault Division’s subordinate 104th and 234th regiments were never committed to Bakhmut and had held positions along the Svatove-Kreminna line into July 2023. The 76th Air Assault Division’s third regiment, the 237th Regiment, was reportedly destroyed in Kherson Oblast in September 2022 and a likely reconstituted 237th Regiment deployed to the Luhansk line no later than January 2023. The 104th and 234th Regiments redeployed to Zaporizhia Oblast in late August 2023 while the 237th Regiment reportedly continued to hold positions near Kreminna as of early July 2023. ISW has not observed evidence of the 237th Regiment redeploying from Kreminna as of this publication.
Russia’s most recent reported lateral redeployment to reinforce the southern front is reportedly being undertaken by the 41st Combined Arms Army - notably not a VDV formation. Ukraine’s Main Military Intelligence Directorate Chief Kyrylo Budanov reported on August 31 that elements of the 41st Combined Arms Army began a “slow” redeployment from the Luhansk line to an unspecified area in southern Ukraine. This lateral redeployment of regular motorized rifle units likely reflects the fact that Russian forces are running out of VDV units to move. All of Russia’s VDV regiments and brigades not already deployed to the south are committed to the Bakhmut area with the exception of the 331st Airborne Regiment of the 98th Airborne Division and the reconstituted 237th Air Assault Regiment of the 76th Air Assault Division, both of which are reportedly still operating on the Kreminna-Svatove line as of late August and July, respectively. Reports of elements of the 83rd Separate Airborne Brigade operating near Nesteryanka, on the western shoulder of the Ukrainian drive to Robotyne in Zaporizhia Oblast, likely demonstrate how eager the Russians are to get additional VDV reinforcements to the Robotyne salient.
Ukrainian forces’ sustained operations in Bakhmut since spring 2023 have successfully fixed a large portion of Russia’s VDV forces and have thus increased Ukraine’s chances of operational success on the southern frontline by preventing the creation of a VDV reserve there. Sustained Ukrainian combat operations near Bakhmut since December 2022 have fixed elements of two of Russia’s four VDV divisions and three of the VDV’s four independent brigades. This is a significant achievement. The VDV is Russia’s principal expeditionary force and Russia’s highest mobility combat force. Ukrainian activity near Bakhmut has attritted these VDV elements, deprived them of opportunities to regroup and refit, and have prevented the Russian command from using them to form a high mobility operational reserve to defend the southern front. The concentration of any significant proportion of these VDV units in the Robotyne area would likely have made Ukrainian penetration of the lines there impossible.
The Ukrainian defense of and counteroffensive around Bakhmut thus reflects sound campaign design principles. The Ukrainians took advantage of Russia’s fixation with the operationally insignificant town of Bakhmut to draw the highest-quality mobile Russian reserves there first to complete the Russian seizure of the town and then to hold it against Ukrainian counter-offensive operations that began almost as soon as Wagner forces pulled back.
A Russian redeployment of all or most of these VDV elements to defend in southern Ukraine would likely have benefited Russia far more than the deployment of Ukrainian counter-offensive forces from Bakhmut to Zaporizhia. Russian forces in Zaporizhia lack the manpower necessary to defend the entirety of the field fortifications they have prepared. The redeployment of elements of multiple VDV divisions and separate brigades would have allowed them to man those defenses in depth, thus forcing Ukrainian troops attempting to penetrate the lines to confront fresh defenders repeatedly. Ukrainian forces would not have benefited as much by concentrating more of their own combat power on their breakthrough efforts. Lack of mine-clearing equipment and the challenges of conducting mine-clearing operations in the face of Russian fixed and rotary-wing attacks supporting extensive Russian artillery and anti-tank systems operating from heavily prepared field fortifications and tree lines were the main obstacles to a rapid Ukrainian penetration. Ukrainian difficulties in coordinating combined arms operations on which Ukrainian counter-offensive forces had been hastily trained compounded these obstacles. More Ukrainian forces wrestling with such difficulties would not have improved Ukraine’s chances materially. The Russian defensive positions around Bakhmut were not initially heavily mined, moreover, and therefore likely did not draw many of Ukraine’s limited mine-clearing capabilities to that area at least initially. More Ukrainian forces pushing south into Russia’s well-defended minebelts in Zaporizhia were thus very unlikely to make a decisive difference in the effectiveness of Ukrainian counteroffensives in the area whereas the unavailability of so much of Russia’s potential reserve forces has likely given Ukraine its chance to make significant gains in the south.
This product’s purpose is not to offer a full evaluation of Ukraine’s campaign design or to comment on the effectiveness of Ukrainian tactics and operations on the Zaporizhia axis. It is meant simply to demonstrate that Ukrainian defensive and then counteroffensive operations around Bakhmut had the operationally sound effect of using the irrational Russian fixation on that town to draw a disproportionate amount of Russia’s limited mobile combat reserve there in a way that set much more favorable conditions for Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in the south than Ukraine could otherwise have expected to face. Ukrainian forces will likely have to continue to press hard around Bakhmut to keep Russian VDV forces pinned there, but that pressure will likely be worth the advantage of preventing those Russian forces from flowing quickly into southern Zaporizhia Oblast to refit and prepare to stop the decisive Ukrainian effort in that direction.
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