A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 28, 2023

How Russia's Bakhmut Casualties Make Holding Occupied Ukraine Harder

Another benefit of the extended Ukrainian defense of Bakhmut is that it has caused Russia to hollow out its occupation force behind the front. 

If Ukraine can breach the Russian line and then pour more troops and equipment into that hole to extend it and pursue, Russia will have a hard time pushing rapid reaction forces to stem the advance. JL

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Wagner Group has lost as much as 65% of its total force at Bakhmut. Russian losses may top 30,000 in the attempt to capture this single city. (But) a shortage of personnel is preventing Russia from holding onto full control over occupied areas. An estimated 97% of Russia’s military is in Ukraine. Russia originally had over 27,500 members of its National Guard in Ukraine to exert control over occupied areas. However, many of these units have since been pulled to the front and have suffered significant casualties, as images showing abandoned bases behind the lines demonstrate. That’s causing Russia difficulties in areas they have annexed.

For several days, the situation in Bakhmut was relatively calm. Relatively. Meaning that it only looked like one of the middle tiers of hell instead of the lowermost bolgia. Having reached the railroad station at the center of town, Russian forces seemed to reduce their pace and for nearly a week not only did Russia show little advance, Ukraine actually pushed Wagner forces back in at least two areas of the city.

Rumors that Russia was preparing for a final push to clear Ukrainian troops from the city before Russian Victory Day parades rolled around on May 9 seemed to get a boost when Ukraine identified several new ammunition depots in the city. On the other hand, Ukraine identified those ammo dumps by blowing them, so any actual push has apparently been somewhat deflated.

However, over the last two days, Russia has started moving again. Not in the sense of “one big push,” but with the same kind of grinding, high-cost, block by block, artillery plus infantry advance they have been making since Soledar was captured by Russian forces at the end of 2022.

On Wednesday, Russia destroyed a four-story building in the southwest of Bakhmut, reportedly Ukraine’s local HQ for some weeks. Some accounts put that destruction down to missiles launched from planes circling kilometers to the east. Others pin the destruction on a weapon that Russia has driven into the city: the largest mortar in the world.

According to Euromaidan Press, Ukraine has been stepping up air defenses around Bakhmut, shooting down more drones and incoming missiles launched from aircraft. However, Russia destroyed several blocks of high-rise buildings northwest of the train station using 500-kilogram air-launched glide bombs safely released kilometers from the front. Ukrainian snipers had been striking at Russian forces around the rail line from those taller buildings, which are now all but gone.

There are concerns that with Ukraine deprived of these positions, Russian forces can advance through the streets of Bakhmut more rapidly.

At the same time, Russia has reportedly brought into Bakhmut several 2S4 Tyulpan self-propelled heavy mortars. Though it can move relatively quickly down the highway, the 2S4 has a very slow rate of fire (about one round per minute) and a short range of less than 10 kilometers. That lack of range and slow rate of fire has allowed Ukraine to destroy seven of the (as few as) nine that were in active service at the start of the war.

Vulnerable as they are, there’s a reason that Russia still uses these things and why it may have pulled more of the moldering 40+ year old guns out of storage and patched them together to send to Bakhmut: The 2S4 Tyulpan has an astounding 240 mm diameter barrel. That makes it larger than many naval guns.

Why does it take so long between shots? Because each 130 kilogram shell (that’s nearly 300 pounds!) has to be wrangled into position by hand with the help of a small crane. It really seems ridiculous to call these things a “shell” in the same sense as the ammo used by most guns.

The 2S4 is really the last word in giant mortar systems. It’s the last word because … people stopped making giant mortars.

Once upon a time (mostly meaning in the 19th century) armies on all sides rolled out mortars of almost unfathomable size. That included the 610 mm “Monster Mortar” of Belgium, and the U.S. made “Little David,” which had a diameter of 914.4 mm and shells roughly the size of a small car. These guns are all pretty famous for being enormous wastes of time and money. In World War II, the Germans, who could never resist trying to make a super weapon, rolled out the 600 mm “Karl-Gerät” (built by the same guys who build Leopard tanks today). But hauling a gun that size around led to building a 124-ton vehicle that couldn’t go faster than a walking pace and its 2,170-kilogram (2.4 tons) shells were … unwieldy.

Still, various armies were building relatively large mortars up until the 1960s, when they were largely replaced by the combination of air and ground-based missiles, including MLRS systems. The Soviet Union’s last massive mortar, the 420 mm “Oka,” never really entered production. The 280 mm Soviet M1939, their biggest gun of World War II, was finally retired in the 1970s.

Now the 2S4 Tyulpan lingers on as the one of the last of a fading age, which doesn’t make those massive shells hit Bakhmut with any less effect. It also doesn’t make the falling shells any easier to stop. Their relatively short arc apparently makes them more difficult to intercept than incoming drones or missiles.

The best way to stop them is to just do what Ukraine has done at least seven times already: Destroy the guns.

A triumph of barbarism

A very sad farewell this morning. Among the buildings that have just been destroyed in Bakhmut is the building that contained the famous mural of a mother holding up a young girl. That building, with its joyous image of hope for the future … is gone. Just completely gone.

This mural … in a way, it was Bakhmut. For people driving into the city along the T0504 highway from Kostyantynivka, this was the first sight that greeted them on reaching the city. This happy scene defined expectations and framed the entrance to the city.

The mural was not a person. So far as I’m aware, no one died in the destruction of this building. But the loss is incalculable. Where there were once such scenes of faith in the future and the wonder of everyday life, now there is this. Only this.

Unless something changes, Bakhmut is nearing the end

Right now in Bakhmut, Ukrainian forces are still clinging to the western edge of the city, but “clinging” definitely seems like the right word. In spite of talk about potential reinforcements, claims that Ukraine was building forces north and south of the city, and days in which small areas were returned to Ukrainian control, the Russian advance continues. Right now, Russia holds somewhere between 85% and 90% of what falls within the city boundaries of Bakhmut. No matter what ISW or anyone else has been saying for months, it seems unlikely that Wagner Group or other Russian forces will culminate anywhere short of capturing 100% of the city.

There are reports today that Ukraine is preparing a “surprise” for Russian forces in Bakhmut, but such reports have circulated so often that it’s hard to take them seriously at this point. In spite of everything that’s been said, what’s visible on the ground is that Russia takes a block, then takes another block, then … etc.

The cost of this may be extremely high. U.S. intelligence estimates that Wagner Group has lost as much as 65% of its total force at Bakhmut. Total Russian losses may top 30,000 in the attempt to capture this single city.

But Russia is apparently willing to pay that cost, and so far Ukraine either hasn’t found the right tactics to stop the Russian advance, or hasn’t been willing to dedicate the necessary resources to push Wagner back.

In the area around the city, Ukrainian forces reportedly had some success in fighting both to the north and south near Ivaniske. However, Russian forces made another push at that bend in the road west of Khromove, making any attempt to move down the former “road of life” not just difficult, but suicidal. The Ukrainian general staff reports that Russia made at least eight assaults directly toward Khromove on Tuesday. These were apparently repelled, but taking that location, permanently closing off this route, and threatening even the dirt roads that remain are definitely high on Russia’s agenda.

If Ukraine isn’t going to lose Bakhmut completely, something has to change, and it has to change within a matter of days, because a couple of weeks is probably all that remains at the current rate of Russian advance.

Russia is finding it difficult to hold onto what it has taken

An estimated 97% of Russia’s military is in Ukraine. And as images showing abandoned bases behind the lines demonstrate, most of those Russian forces are now at the front. That’s causing Russia some difficulties in those areas they claim to have annexed.

On Wednesday, Radio Liberty reported that a shortage of personnel is preventing Russia from holding onto full control over occupied areas. Much of this information appears to be based on analysis of one of the secret documents that was leaked by the former Massachusetts airman now in custody, which shows that Russia originally had over 27,500 members of its National Guard in Ukraine to exert control over occupied areas.

However, many of these units have since been pulled to the front and have suffered significant casualties. Shortage of other personnel has also required these forces to tackle everything from police work to managing local infrastructure. That lack of Russian forces behind the lines is opening up occupied areas to increased activity by partisans.

The latest example, as Ukrainian Pravda reports, appears to be a large explosion in Melitopol, in buildings where Russian officials and collaborators worked to conduct “law enforcement.”

98% of promised Western vehicles now in Ukraine

On Wednesday, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced that 98% of the combat vehicles that Western nations promised would be in Ukraine this spring have been delivered. This doesn’t include the U.S. M1 Abrams tanks, which were never expected to arrive before fall.

What has been delivered totals 1,550 armored vehicles, 230 tanks, ammunition, and other supplies. Included in these figures are both Western tanks and additional upgraded Soviet-era tanks delivered to Ukraine since the first of the year.


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