The “Bakhmut strategy” of luring in elite Russian forces into the totemic eastern city appears to have succeeded after Ukraine’s armour broke through the main defensive lines in the south.
While some western observers have questioned Kyiv’s strategy of committing troops to Bakhmut, in Donetsk region, after it was seized by Wagner mercenaries in May, the battle has drawn in Moscow’s seasoned VDV airborne soldiers.
This has led to a severe depletion of Russia’s mobile reserves allowing Ukraine to break through the front line in the southern Robotyne area, in Zaporizhzhia province, despite elements of VDV regiments belatedly drafted in to block them.
After three months of fighting, Ukraine’s western-supplied armoured vehicles have been geolocated beyond Russia’s third and final line of defence in the Robotyne area in recent days.
While VDV paratroopers have attempted to hold off the offensive, their numbers and equipment have proved insufficient, according to reports.
At all costs
This is largely down to Moscow’s most capable troops being used as frontline infantry to hold off the Ukrainian counter-offensive that has been continuing north and south of Bakhmut in an attempt to encircle it.
Four months ago the city was taken at huge cost, reportedly of more than 30,000 Russian lives, and the Kremlin is determined to hold on to it at all costs, with at least two out of the army’s four VDV divisions deployed there.
“Bakhmut is a dead-end geographically but it is absolutely iconic for the Kremlin as it's the only success that the Russians can point to,” said Gen Sir Richard Barrons, a retired British Army officer.
“This is about complicating Russian decision-making and tying down and exhausting the resources that they have.”
The Ukrainian brigades committed to Bakhmut are among the most experienced, which has raised questions whether they could be better used in the Zaporizhzhia region, with the Nato-supplied armour.
But Bakhmut is politically important both for Russia's President Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, said Alex Lord, Russian expert at the Sibylline intelligence company.
“That political importance is clearly having a big impact on decision making as to where resources are allocated,” he said.
“There is a military rationale behind the Bakhmut strategy to continue attacking, because it's important to Russia and the prospect of losing the city after months of gruelling fighting will be a huge blow to Russia's war machine.”
Col Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former tank commander, argued that the Bakhmut strategy was “to grab the tiger by the tail and hold on tight”, hoping that fixing and diminishing the VDV would help the wider counter-offensive.
“The Russians have become fixated with Bakhmut and the Ukrainians are quite happy for that to happen,” he added. “They are tying down the Russians who irrationally think that they must cling on to it along with the remnants of their elite force.”
If Bakhmut was encircled and recaptured by the Ukrainians, this would be a “major blow for Putin”, said Mr Lord and “indicate to the West, that Ukraine can retake strategic objectives.”
With the Kremlin sending the VDV into Bakhmut and earlier this month into defending Robotyne, the relatively elite force is suffering significant attrition rates, say experts.
As a result of the “ill-conceived and poorly executed” assault at the start of the invasion last year, hundreds of airborne soldiers were lost, including senior officers, said Mr Lord.
“It’s pretty clear that the VDV are plugging a lot of capability gaps to contain potential Ukrainian breaches where possible, but that is having a major impact on the overall coherence of VDV units and their ability to retain their elite status.
“Russia has now lost a significant proportion of its most elite and capable forces.”
The belated deployment of at least five undermanned VDV regiments to contain the southern Robotyne breach now appears to have been insufficient, according to reports.
Reports and footage on Thursday showed US-made Stryker and German Marder infantry fighting vehicles beyond the third defensive lines of dragons’ teeth and anti-tank trenches.
Reports on Friday suggested while the breach was small it was being heavily contested.
“The Russians are hammering the area with artillery and launching counterattacks,” one military blogger wrote. “Ukrainian units are taking heavy casualties.”
The Institute for the Study of War think tank reported that Ukrainian armour was for the first time “operating beyond the final line of the Russian defensive layer” and having armoured vehicles near enemy positions showed “important signs of progress in the Ukrainian counter-offensive”.
“This is hugely significant,” said Col de Bretton Gordon.
“It shouts that Russian artillery is far enough away not to be able to affect them and accurate Ukrainian artillery behind lines is keeping them down.”
That coincides with a number of reports that the Russian artillery is low on ammunition, has worn-out gun barrels and poorly manufactured shells that fail to explode.
But it is also a critical moment to see if the Nato-equipped 10th Corps has the ability and numbers to expand the Robotyne breakthrough, said Gen Barrons, Britain’s former chief of Joint Forces Command.
He asked: “How much has 10th Corps got in the locker to exploit it?
“We need to remember that the exploitation is not just to make progress, but it’s then holding it from counterattack, and that’s a big ask.”
Seeing Strykers and Marders closing in on the village of Verbove suggested that they did not feel vulnerable to Russian anti-tank weapons and could significantly speed up the offensive, said Mr Lord.
“Previously, dismounted infantry attacks meant that operations were inevitably slower but once you can bring in armoured vehicles you can increase your firepower and your movement and manoeuvre capabilities.”
The “key question” was whether the Ukrainians can now build enough momentum to “generate more rapid advances,” Mr Lord added.
“The rate of Ukrainian advances, unfortunately, until now have been too slow to generate momentum allowing the Russians time to fortify additional defence lines,” he said.