The battle is being waged to the last scrap of flesh, not for military but primarily for geopolitical reasons writes Chris Nineham

An attack on Bakhmut in the Russian advance towards Siversk in August 2022

The battle of Bakhmut is almost unthinkably horrific. The means of warfare are straight out of the slaughter books of the First World War. And the battle is being waged to the last scrap of flesh not for military but primarily for geopolitical reasons.

Wave after wave of poorly armed Russian soldiers, many former convicts recruited from jail by the mercenary Wagner Group, sometimes armed only with shovels, are being sent over the top, to be mown down by Ukrainian gunners, or torn apart by their mortars.

According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, 18 human waves of Wagner troops sometimes attack a single trench in a 24 hour period. Any member of the Wagner group who retreats or surrenders is immediately killed, often with a sledgehammer. Sr. Lt Petro Horbatenko from the Ukrainian Third Storm Brigade is quoted as follows:

“A Wagner fighter doesn’t have an option to pull back. Their only chance of survival is to keep moving ahead,” he said. “And this tactic works. It’s a zombie war…They are throwing cannon fodder at us, aiming to cause maximum damage.”

One of Wagner’s men captured on the Bakhmut front said that he was trained for three weeks with one skill: how to crawl and advance in a forest, an indication that he wasn’t expected to survive his first mission. On that mission he reports, “two machine guns were blazing at us, people were being torn to bits, but they kept telling us: keep crawling ahead and dig in. It was just plain dumb,”

The situation on the Ukrainian side is not much better. The Kyiv Independent reports ‘multiple defenders of the embattled city in Donetsk Oblast feel like they are in a similar boat’. Ukrainian infantrymen told the outlet of ‘unprepared poorly-trained battalions being thrown into the front line meat grinder to survive as best they could with little support from armored vehicles, mortars, artillery, drones and tactical information’.

One Ukrainian medic is quoted as saying ‘The battalion came in the middle of December…between all the different platoons, there were 500 of us…A month ago, there were literally 150 of us’.

‘When you go out to the position, it’s not even a 50/50 chance that you’ll come out of there (alive)’ says another, ‘it’s more like 30/70’.

As the Russians destroy more and more buildings, there is almost nothing left of the city and there is next to no cover for Ukrainian troops. According to the Kyiv Independent, the medic reports that people have been suffocated by trenches collapsing. Bakhmut is almost encircled. Another Ukrainian soldier concluded as follows:

‘I’ll put it like this, we should get our people out because if we don’t take off, then in the next few weeks it’s going to be bad’.

And yet despite this insane carnage, the political and military leaders on both sides, like their forbears in World War One, keep ordering more sacrifice and more blood. The Russian assault continues unabated. And although the city is levelled and almost surrounded, Ukraine’s President Zelensky reported on Monday that a meeting of Ukrainian generals had agreed to call up reinforcements and continue the defence of Bakhmut.

Commentators are queueing up to say that Bakhmut has little military significance. Most believe the city will fall eventually. The reason for this apocalyptic, inhuman confrontation can only be understood in the wider context of the war. The defence of the city has taken on a symbolic significance.

Recently there have been some signs of war-weariness on the Western side. A January report by the influential US Rand Corporation think tank called ‘Avoiding A Long War’, summed up the pros and cons of the war for Washington. With stomach-churning cynicism, the report considers that ‘a protracted conflict, as perverse as it might seem, has some potential upsides for the United States’. In particular it says ‘a longer war would further degrade the Russian military and weaken the Russian economy.’

It goes on to conclude, however, that Russia has suffered a great deal of death and destruction already and that the advantages of the extra damage that a long war could deliver against Russia are minimal and outweighed by the downsides for the US. These include massive economic dislocation, huge direct costs to the West, the risk of nuclear war and the fact that Ukrainians will suffer more loss of life, displacement and misery if the war drags on. Moves in the direction of a resolution of the war by negotiations are therefore, on balance, recommended.

The report confirms much of what the anti-war movement has been saying from the start about the war; that it is the Ukrainian people who are the main victims, that the West’s focus is on damaging Russia, that it creates a strong risk of escalation and in particular great power nuclear confrontation, that it is almost certainly unwinnable and that it will end in negotiations. It also makes clear that the overall strategic developments in the war are very much dependent on decisions made in Washington.

More immediately the report reflects growing worry in ruling US circles that open-ended support for the Ukrainian struggle could have diminishing returns. Hence the high stakes in Bakhmut. Putin needs a breakthrough to prove Russia still has attack capabilities. Zelensky needs to convince the West that the momentum is still with him and to keep alive the fantasy of outright victory. The industrial killing in Bakhmut may continue for some time.

One of the anxieties being expressed by Western leaders is that there are signs of a growing anti-war mood amongst their populations. Their headache is of course our hope. The anniversary of the war saw the biggest protests yet in Europe against the war including tens of thousands on the streets in Berlin. The carnage in Bakhmut needs to be met with more organising and more resistance to war. Who can read of the carnage there and not favour peace?

08 Mar 2023 by Chris Nineham

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