Why certain cities, or rivers, or even hilltops become strategic centers of military effort and end up as famous battles is one of the great mysteries of wars. In our own military history, the names of important battles roll easily off the tongue: Gettysburg; Hamburger Hill; the battle for Hue; the siege of Bastogne; the landing at Anzio; crossing the Rhine at Remagen; operation Anaconda in Afghanistan.
The reason some of the battles were strategically important is easy to understand. The landing at Anzio set up the assault that ended up with Allied forces taking Rome and led to the eventual defeat of the German army in Italy in April of 1945. The Union army defeated Confederate forces at Gettysburg in their only major offensive north of the Mason-Dixon line. Holding Bastogne was essential to victory in the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes forest in Belgium near the end of World War II.
Other battles made practically no strategic sense at all. The battle in Vietnam for Hamburger Hill lasted 10 days and cost 72 American lives, with 372 wounded. The hill was abandoned by the 101st Airborne Division days after it was taken from the North Vietnamese army. Like so much combat in Vietnam, the battle seemed pointless to begin with, pointless when it was over, and Hamburger Hill came to symbolize the futility of the entire war.
The Russian effort to take Bakhmut makes little strategic sense unless it’s looked at in the context of Russia’s entire war effort. The war in Ukraine is effectively a two-front war at this point: the combat front lines stretching from the Russian border east of Kharkiv to the Black Sea near Kherson in the south; and what might be called the rear lines in major population centers in the country’s central, southern, and western areas.
Much of the reporting nearly a year after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine explains what’s going on in terms of Vladimir Putin’s pique. His army lost a huge swath of territory in Eastern Ukraine, thousands of square miles, so he got very, very mad and sent hundreds of guided cruise missiles and drones into Ukraine’s population centers like Kyiv, Kharkiv, Lviv, and Odessa, taking out apartment buildings, churches, museums, shopping areas, schools, and other civilian targets. He ordered an equal number of missiles and drones to target Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in an attempt to deny most of the country’s population electricity, heat and water over the winter.
Putin’s major problem after nearly 11 months of war is that he cannot just order his army to win its battles on the front lines in Ukraine’s east and south and take more territory. He set out last February wanting to take over the entire country. That was what the offensive against Kyiv was about. His generals and intelligence agencies told him that he could quickly take Ukraine’s capital and force the collapse of the government. President Zelensky would flee, Putin could install a puppet government, and Ukraine would be his.
Look at Putin now. The news is filled with reports of the brutal fighting around Bakhmut and Donetsk and the Russian army’s defense of its positions in Zaporizhia east of Kherson, trying to prevent Ukraine from cutting off Russia’s land-bridge to Crimea. Putin is sitting there in Moscow reduced to fighting for little towns in the middle of agriculture fields in eastern and southern Ukraine.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is resembling more and more the United States invasion of Vietnam with regular army and Marine forces in the mid-1960’s. Putin had no good reason to invade Ukraine. He made a couple of stabs at strategic excuses before the war, giving unhinged speeches about the threat of NATO and how Ukraine was “historically” part of Russia. Nobody believed him. He just wanted to do it.
Similarly, Lyndon Johnson ordered hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to go to war in Vietnam with no reason any sane person accepted. There was the “domino theory,” of course. Johnson didn’t want to be blamed for “losing” Southeast Asia in the way that American leftists and “commies” were blamed for “losing” China after World War II. It was bunkum, all of it, from the very beginning right through to the Vietnam war’s ignominious end.
This week’s battle for Bakhmut seems to fall squarely into the Hamburger Hill analogy. Taking Hill 937, our army’s map designation for that piece of Vietnam real estate, had no strategic importance other than it was there, and it was occupied by an army we didn’t like, the army of North Vietnam – a false construct if there ever was one, like the DMZ dividing North and South Korea. Major General Melvin Zais, commander of the 101st Airborne Division, admitted as much after the battle was over and the dead were being packaged up to be shipped back home. “This is not a war of hills. That hill had no military value whatsoever,” said Zais. “We found the enemy on Hill 937 and that's where we fought him.” And then they left.
The American “victory” at Hamburger Hill caused a great debate in Congress over the war, and it led to a major change in tactics by the overall American military commander in Vietnam, General Creighton Abrams. The American effort in Vietnam went from something called “maximum engagement” with the enemy to “protective reaction,” which was essentially to defend American troops who came under attack by NVA or Vietcong forces. On June 10, 1969, five days after the 101st abandoned its positions on Hamburger Hill, President Richard Nixon announced the first troop withdrawals from Vietnam.
Putin hasn’t announced any troop withdrawals yet. Instead, he just did it, permitting his forces which failed to take Kyiv in the early weeks of the war to withdraw into Belarus and across the border into Russia. There, they were reconstituted and redeployed into other areas that Russia had taken but which already needed defending, like Kharkiv and Kherson. They proceeded to lose most of the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine and Kherson in the south, and now Putin’s forces are hanging onto Donetsk by their fingernails and fighting one bloody engagement after another trying to take back Bakhmut and other small towns along the frontlines in Ukraine’s northeast that they lost in September. Sounds like our “protective reaction” in Vietnam, doesn’t it?
The other way Putin’s invasion of Ukraine compares with our invasion of Vietnam is that his soldiers are fighting on foreign ground against an army comprised of the people who live there. It’s their land, and that’s why Ukraine isn’t having any problems with discipline and the will to fight with its army. They want to be there. They are volunteers fighting for their country. Putin’s army, on the other hand, is today filled with ill-trained conscripts, at least some of whom had to be rounded up and forced to serve. Our army in Vietnam was full of draftees who didn’t want to be there who were fighting in a foreign land against people who knew the territory and fought fiercely to take it back from the American aggressors.
Russia is reported to be desperate for victories, according to the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the British Defense Ministry, which have been very good at deciphering Russian intentions in the war. The ISW reported on Saturday that a White House source claimed last week that Yevgeny Prigozhin, the Russian billionaire who owns the mercenary operation The Wagner Group which is fighting in Ukraine for Russia, appears to be intent on exploiting part of eastern Ukraine for profit. Prigozhin is said to be planning to extract salt and gypsum from deep mines in the Bakhmut region. According to the ISW, in the south, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov is apparently trying to exploit industrial parts of Mariupol for his own business purposes.
Russian military bloggers, who have become hugely important in the war because they reflect Russian right-wing attitudes about the war, have been critical of Prigozhin and Russian commanders on the front lines because the battles to take Soledar and Bakhmut are causing such heavy Russian losses. And today Putin showed he’s listening to the military bloggers by announcing that he is replacing his top ground commander, Gen. Sergei Surovikin, with Gen. Valery Gerasimov, who was one of the key architects of the war. Good luck with your new fall-guy, Vladdy.
But beyond these hints about Russian intentions from bloggers and rumors from inside Russia, it's hard to know on a day-to-day basis how the battles being fought in Bakhmut and Soledar are going to go, or why Russia is fighting so hard to take these specific small towns, especially when so much damage has been done over the last 10 months of the war. “Everything is completely destroyed. There is almost no life left,” President Zelensky said of the fighting around Bakhmut yesterday. “The whole land near Soledar is covered with the corpses of the occupiers and scars from the strikes. This is what madness looks like.”
And yet the madness continues.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.
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