The Syrskyi Plan: How Ukraine intends to recapture Bakhmut
Bachmut lies in rubble and ashes: nevertheless, the fighting continues there. Kiev hopes for liberation. For good reason.
Bachmut. It is a symbolic battle that will go down in Ukrainian history: fierce fighting over Bakhmut has been going on in the Donetsk region for almost a year. At the end of May, almost ten months after the start of the Russian invasion, the Wagner mercenaries announced the taking of the city. But even then it became apparent that the Ukrainians would have a good chance of advancing north and south again in order to half-encircle the Russians in the city.
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The Ukrainians hoped this would give them a strategic advantage. And indeed: In the meantime, the defense of Bakhmut, where hardly any building was not damaged in the course of the fighting, is proving to be increasingly difficult for the Russian armed forces. Behind this is a plan that has become known in Ukraine as the “Syrskyj Plan” – named after the commander of the Ukrainian land forces.
Oleksandr Syrskyj was already responsible for the successful defense of Kiev and for the counter-offensive in Kharkiv district. Now he leads the Ukrainian troops in a sector that includes Bakhmut and is often on the ground with the soldiers.
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Since the beginning of the year, international experts have repeatedly discussed whether the fighting over Bakhmut makes any strategic sense at all. Because of the bloody capture of the city, the Russian army has not captured a particularly important logistical hub that it can use for further advances. But it’s about more.
Bachmut is more of domestic political importance for Moscow. The Russians had not had a major success in almost a year since occupying the city of Lysychansk in July 2022 – a victory was badly needed. For Ukraine, the question was rather whether it wouldn’t be better to withdraw from Bakhmut and thereby save our own strength. But the Kiev decided against it. For two reasons.
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On the one hand, the withdrawal from Bakhmut would have meant that other towns and cities would have become the focus of the Russian army. On the other hand, General Syrskyj expected that the Ukrainians could inflict great losses on the Russians, as they did in the battles for Severodonetsk and Lysychansk – the weakened Russian troops retrospectively played an important role in the liberation of Kharkiv.
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Liberation from Bachmut would be a great psychological achievement
Syrskyj’s calculation seems to be working: the Ukrainian armed forces have not yet been able to liberate the two key towns of Berkhivka north and Klischchiivka south of Bakhmut. But they managed to take many of the strategic heights – and from there they are now shelling the Russians in Bakhmut.
But the recapture of the city – especially in Berchiwka – is not a sure-fire success. “That’s where the occupiers brought their best-prepared units,” writes military journalist Bohdan Myroshnykov on Telegram. “It’s the Russians with combat experience from Syria or Chechnya, and their defense is quite competent.” South of Bakhmut, however, the Ukrainians are advancing.
“Bakhmut is a promising direction for Ukraine right now,” Oleksiy Melnyk, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian army and co-director of international security programs at the Kiev-based think tank Centr Razumkova, told this newsroom. “If the Ukrainians manage in a comparatively short time to nullify this victory, which was highly praised by Russian propaganda, it would be a tremendous political and psychological success.”
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Melnyk used to be the chief adviser to the Defense Ministry in Kiev, and he sees a chance of success in encircling and retaking the city. “Bakhmut may not have a huge strategic value, but the Russians used up a lot of forces there.” Of course, the Ukrainians would have suffered losses there too, but new Western weapon systems and brigades prepared for the counteroffensive were practically not sighted around Bakhmut. A good sign, Melnyk believes.
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“Besides, the Ukrainians act completely differently from the Russians, who stormed one house after another in the city themselves,” he emphasizes. “I hardly know anyone who still questions the sense of the Ukrainian operation near Bakhmut.” The liberation is therefore not imminent – even if, in contrast to the Russian attacks on the city, this operation will most likely not last more than nine months.
“Our own forces were at risk of full encirclement there,” Oleksandr Musiyenko, a prominent Ukrainian military expert, told Ukrainian television. “Now some Russian troops are potentially facing the same threat.” Mussiyenko warned against premature optimism, however, because Moscow has already begun moving reserves into the city. “You have to be careful with the forecasts.”
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