A week ago, a West Point classmate and I were discussing urban warfare. As most discussions on the topic usually do, ours gravitated to the World War II Battle of Stalingrad, the most dominant feature on the landscape of urban warfare history.
A few days later, the New York Times published an article about the ongoing fight between Ukrainian defenders in the city of Bakhmut and the Russian forces that have been trying to dislodge them for months. The article contained a graphic that immediately brought me back to maps of Stalingrad circa November to December of 1942 we had studied back at school.
The similarities between the two positions raise an important question: Is it time for the Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut to heed the lessons of Stalingrad? More specifically, has the time come to cede control of the city to Russian forces and live to fight another day? The facts of the situation facing the Ukrainians suggest that it is.
First, we must acknowledge the importance of Bakhmut not only as key terrain militarily but also as a strategic symbol of Ukrainian resistance. Much like Stalingrad was, Bakhmut itself is a somewhat minor city in terms of population and size, but its geographic position is at the crossroads of two main supply routes (the M03 north to Slovyansk and the T0504 west to Kostyantynivka) making it a key logistical node for further Russian advance.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his defense staff were quite right to pour resources into the defense of this position. Much like the Soviet defenders of Stalingrad in 1942, Ukraine’s forces turned the city into a rock that broke the wave of Russian advance in eastern Ukraine.
Their stalwart defense transformed Bakhmut from a key piece of operational terrain into a key piece of strategically symbolic terrain. For every minute the defenders held each meter of ground the city’s status as an emblem of Ukrainian defiance against the aggressors grew. Zelenskyy has called the city a “fortress of [Ukraine’s] morale.” But all key terrain has a selling point.
While the Ukrainian forces’ dogged defense thus far has emulated that of the Soviet defenders in 1942, giving ground only to fall back to more entrenched positions, at Stalingrad German forces did slowly manage to seize the majority of the city, making them the defenders against the Soviet counterattack that eventually encircled them. And it is from the follies of the German High Command at this critical juncture of the battle that Ukrainian leaders should learn: there comes a time when the wisest decision is to leave while you still can.
If maps openly available to the public are accurate, the lines of communication to Bakhmut are at their breaking point. The M03 has already been seized and the T0504 either has been seized or has Russian forces within a hundred meters of it bringing any logistical or maneuver movement along it within range of direct fire from Russian armored elements. To the north, the last remaining alternate supply route, the narrow O0506, remains open but has Russian forces likely within several hundred meters. Much like the German 6th Army at Stalingrad, the Ukrainian defenders are rapidly nearing encirclement.
Some others may be more optimistic and say that the Ukrainians should hold out until the German-supplied Leopard tanks and their Ukrainian crews that recently finished training can be brought to bear in the summer offensive. This is the same situation that the 6th Army leaders faced in 1942 as their own encirclement neared.
They were promised reinforcements that would push back the advancing Soviet forces. Only they came too late, and an entire army of experienced veterans was lost along with the battle. It could be weeks or even months until the logistical support and force organization required to integrate this much-heralded batch of Western equipment into Ukrainian formations is complete. Bakhmut may only have days until it is encircled.
It is imperative that Zelenskyy not fall for the intellectual trap that the German leadership did. He cannot afford to misconstrue the symbolic importance of Bakhmut for the military importance that the experience and manpower of the city’s defenders will have for the greater Ukrainian war effort. He will need those forces more than ever if the summer offensive is to be successful—as well as for the future defense of cities in western Donetsk (Slovyansk, Kramatorsk, and Kostyantynivka).
While I sincerely hope that my dire prediction will be proven wrong, some things are too important to be left to fate. Bakhmut has been the keystone of Ukraine’s defense in the Donbas. It was a meatgrinder that chewed up Russian formations, costing them dearly in blood, treasure, and willpower.
It was the bastion of the spirit of Ukrainian resistance, filling both the citizenry and warfighters alike with the hope that despite the forces against them they may see their country whole again one day. But it cannot be the hill upon which the hopes for Ukraine’s future are left to perish. To the valiant defenders of Bakhmut the only thing that can be said is well done, but it is time to live to fight another day and ensure that your sacrifices have not been in vain.
Gaelan Hanlon is a 2014 graduate of the United States Military Academy. He holds a master of arts in global security from Arizona State University where he concentrated on irregular warfare approaches to great power competition.