Matt Davies – THE BAKHMUT CRUCIBLE (part 1)

Part 1 – Ukrainian Logistics: Varicose Veins vs Interior Lines

crucible noun (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

cru·​ci·​ble ˈkrü-sə-bəl

  1. a vessel of a very refractory material (such as porcelain) used for melting and calcining a substance that requires a high degree of heat
  2. a severe test
  3. a place or situation in which concentrated forces interact to cause or influence change or development

The eastern Ukraine town Bakhmut, known traditionally by Russia as Artyomovsk, has posed a crucial defence for the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) and their colleagues among the Interior Ministry’s National Guard (NGU) troops, Border Guards (DPSU), Police, and sundry volunteer formations and units.

This first of a series of essays will present mostly simple analysis, using mostly Ukrainian sources, to illustrate Bakhmut’s importance, while proving that Russian strategy and tactics of the Special Military Operation from February 2022 (SMO) made a systematically coordinated, efficient and logically sound war effort centered ultimately around and onto the Bakhmut Axis.

The study will then highlight vulnerabilities and deficiencies in the Ukrainian defence, revealing inefficiencies and contradictions when viewed against Kiev’s stated war aims such as „returning all Ukrainian land” including Crimea.

In several ways it will be seen that the Battle of Bakhmut truly defines a „crucible”. It has caused overheating and disintegration to the AFU, in a trial of both sides’ respective forces and their capabilities, all fundamentally altering conditions to determine the war’s final outcome.

Bakhmut/Artyomovsk lies at the very center of the western Donbas Region. In basic geopolitical and psychological senses the centrality of Bakhmut’s location is so obvious as to virtually define Ukraine’s persistent, legalistic claim to the whole Donbas Region. As is well known, but much neglected in western-led commentary since 24 February 2022, the Donbas’ indisputably large ethnic Russian populace was the main source of internal rebellion which arose in response to the 2014 Maidan coup, described as a ‘Revolution of Dignity’ by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists, which deposed the elected government in Kiev.

Map 1: The Donbas & Bakhmut

Perhaps less well known is the fact that a „Ukrainian Donbas” was largely result of Soviet divide-and-rule policy, in which Lenin and later leaders such as Krushchev had approved designs of socialist republics which apportioned more or less internal power and wealth with the aim of internal stability for the Soviet state. For the post-communist Russian Federation, after repeat failure of Minsk peace agreements amid increasing Ukrainian militancy in the Donbas, Russian grip on Bakhmut symbolizes a long-overdue correction to that historical anomaly left by communist rule.

The above factors concentrate together with simple geography to lend Bakhmut its political significance, which may otherwise be not so apparent to outsiders and others unfamiliar with the background of the Donbas War from 2014.

Supplying Bakhmut
Bakhmut lies at the convergence of two key highway routes feeding Ukrainian ground forces’ front from as far away as Western Europe. These distances are greatest when heading to Bakhmut itself and the AFU’s northern and southern flank extremities in the Donbas. In this vast region of eastern Europe with its notoriously daunting horizons of steppe spread with mostly small settlements, distance acts like a ruthless enemy to both sides. But a quick glance at the maps shows that distance to Bakhmut is particularly cruel to the AFU, conspicuously so out to Bakhmut and its environs.

The main supply routes (MSR) from western and southwestern Ukraine have fed the AFU’s war, more or less, since long before the escalation of Russia’s February 2022 invasion. Immediately the observer can grasp that Ukraine’s supply to the Front expends enormous energy along well-worn or „heated” traffic routes.

Map 2: Feeding Bakhmut by Distance: Main Supply Routes to Bakhmut Note: This study does not examine whether the southern MSR still diverts military traffic, civilian traffic or both at the stretch closest to the Russian forward line of engagement until mid-November.

As is now much more widely known by public onlookers, the Russia-Ukraine War’s scale and intensity involves huge volumes of ordnance, especially various artillery types, supply of which has been key to both sides’ war efforts. But of course, soldiers need to deploy too, often at great distance and with vehicles and vast quantities of heavy and light equipment, as well as to send back their injured and fatigued (sometimes but hardly always their dead too), all as fast and smoothly as possible.

Much of the AFU’s equipment has included plant for construction engineering and defensive stores, the equivalent of major projects along the front line. But whether artillery, more publicized fighting vehicles like main battle tanks and carriers, diggers, dozers, quadcopter and other drones or small vans and cars, all such equipment needs replacement or repair. Just as constant, forces need to replace losses from death, injury, illness, capture, or desertion and other disciplinary trouble. Last but not least, though often neglected against war’s immediate priorities, „an army marches on its stomach”: troops need reliable food supply for health, energy and morale.

Together all of these machine-borne processes demand continuous supply of enormous quantities of fuel, oils, coolant, and clean water too.

The investment committed, from Ukraine but most especially by NATO countries, has been huge. The convergence of the two MSR’s on Bakhmut has meant that such Ukrainian commitment there would be disproportionately high if Kiev sincerely intended to try keeping its remaining Donbas hold, let alone retaking that of the separatist Donetsk and Lugansk republics.

The next essay here examines the systematic Russian actions from 24 February 2022 to divert, delay and distract Ukrainian efforts to maintain its Bakhmut-centred hold in the Donbas.


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