A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 20, 2022

Why the Pentagon Can't Believe the 'Real' Donbas Offensive Has Started

The Pentagon apparently cannot believe that artillery barrages across the entire several hundred mile front (shades of WWII) rather than pinpointing areas of suspected weakness reflects a competent, coherent strategy being pursued by a military known for learning from its mistakes. 

Reports of undermanned Russian formations being thrown back into battle without any evident focus just seems too incompetent to professional western militaries. So that is probably why they think the 'real' Donbas offensive is yet to begin, though there are others who think that this is who the Russians are, this is what they do and if you don't believe it, see "Plan A: Failure To Take Kyiv." JL

Daily Kos reports:

As the Pentagon sees it, despite massive artillery barrages, Russia’s gains have been minimal, mostly ground assaults repulsed by Ukrainian defenders as Russia pushes broadly across the entire Donbas front, but exercises overwhelming force nowhere. A competent military can exploit a breach while protecting it from counter-attack. That’s why the Pentagon must think “This can’t be it. Are the Russians really that incompetent and callous?" Ukrainian forces are advancing in several locations This is a confident, smart, and increasingly well-equipped force using its intelligence, better-trained soldiers, and tactically smarter command (against) an outclassed and poorly motivated enemy.

Exactly a week ago, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concluded that “Russian forces will likely continue ongoing offensive operations in the Donbas region, feeding reinforcements into the fight as they become available rather than gathering reinforcements and replacements for a more coordinated and coherent offensive.” That’s exactly what seems to be happening now as Russia pushes broadly across the entire Donbas front lines, but exercises overwhelming force absolutely nowhere. 

Ukraine has declared the start of the much-anticipated Russian offensive, but the Pentagon is less sure.

As the Pentagon sees it, Russia is merely softening up the frontlines for something bigger down the line. It could very well be that, because despite the massive artillery barrages, Russia’s gains have been minimal, mostly ground assaults repulsed by Ukrainian defenders. So really, more of the same, just at a higher intensity. 

So why are they wasting men and material with these probes? Apparently, it’s what they do. 

The source for this information is Oleksiy Arestovych, an advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and Dmitri helpfully translates his regular dispatches. (In fact, Dmitri’s Twitter account is one of the most informative around.) So according to Arestovych, Russians send a probe, see what happens. If Ukrainians blow up the cannon fodder? Good to know! That area is well-protected, let’s avoid it. But hey, this other advance received minimal resistance, and they lay down artillery to soften it up even more. And then? … Seriously, and then? With a competent military, you have a rear force that can then exploit the breach and push forward, taking additional ground while the original spear holds the breach open, protecting it from counter-attack. Here, Russia sends cannon fodder to die, and then sends some new cannon fodder somewhere else, and they’re laying artillery down the entire front anyway. 

It’s so weird, it almost seems like fiction. Are Russians really that incompetent, stupid, and callous toward the death of their service members? And yet here they are, still probing, still losing men and equipment to drip-drip-drip attacks, even though their big offensive is supposedly underway. The spigot is yet to open. That’s why the Pentagon must think, “This can’t be it. There has to be more coming down the pike.”

All those troops being thrown into the wood chipper have to be replaced. And the Ukrainian General Staff has an ill view of them:

[S]eparate units of the 103th, 109th, 113th, 125th and 127th [motorized] regiment operate. Their equipment was carried out during the forced mobilization of men from the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The structurally-appointed regimes include up to 5 battalions counting about 300 soldiers each. Only 5-10 percent of the personal composition of the specified units have combat experience. The regiment management consists of officers of the armed forces of the Russian Federation. These formations have significant problems with providing weapons, ammunition and medicines.

So the result is forced conscripts like this guy, with no combat experience, zero training, and only 300 soldiers per battalion that are supposed to have 800 to 1,000. (Remember that when the Pentagon says there are 78 BTGs in Ukraine right now. They’re not all created equal.) Their purpose is cannon fodder in human-wave attacks, to see whether an approach is defended by Ukrainians. They are literally dead men walking. Their best chance of survival is mutiny and desertion … to the west. Russians soldiers pulled out of Kyiv certainly have zero interest in getting thrown back into the line of fire. Others in Donbas are refusing orders to advance to combat. (See here, here, here and here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

Assuming some sort of major offensive will at some point take place (still not convinced it will), its early results will determine the mid-term outcome of the war. If Russia advances and Ukraine is unable to hold, morale will increase and Russia will be able to manage some level of unit cohesion. But if they hit brick wall after brick wall, suffering horrendous casualties in the process, that army could disintegrate overnight. Endless parades of casualties, wet and cold from spring rains, and leadership that treats them as garbage take a toll. More artillery guns and ammo would further compound that misery. As Russia knows, artillery is a powerful psychological weapon, traumatizing more than it’ll ever directly kill. 

With American, Dutch, and Canadian artillery starting to flow to Ukraine, their ability to return the favor is getting a huge boost in the coming weeks. Ukraine can withstand the barrages because they have no choice—they’re fighting an existential battle for their survival. But those Russian and Donbas conscripts? They don’t need this shit. They don’t see any Nazis. 

As Mark pointed out earlier, Ukrainian forces are actually advancing in several locations, including the eastern front. This is not Ukraine on its back heels. This is a confident, aggressive, smart, and increasingly well-equipped defensive force using its superior intelligence, better-trained soldiers, and tactically smarter command (all the way down to the squad level with a real NCO culture) to bedevil an outclassed, outmaneuvered, and poorly motivated enemy. 

Can Russia cobble something together to push harder? Maybe. Lots of war will still be fought. But Russia better hope this isn’t the actual massive offensive they’ve been promising. Otherwise, there’s not much war left.


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