A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 19, 2023

The Reason Fear Of Russian Advances in Ukraine Is Increasingly Irrelevant

The Russians have tried: in Bakhmut and Adviivka. The results have a predictable sameness: they are either beaten back with brutal losses or they gain a few dozen meters at the cost of many Russian lives. 

Whatever is left of the Russian army in Ukraine - which is pretty much the Russian army anywhere - has ceased to function as an offensive force. The question now is whether it is capable of defense. JL 

Mark Sumner reports in Daily Kos:

Bakhmut has held through all the stages of Russia’s mobilization and through the winter offensive. It has been the hot center of all the fighting in Ukraine for many awful months. Repositioning Ukrainian forces along higher ground west and north of the city (is now) irrelevant. Because it seems more likely the only forces backpedaling will be Russian. There’s no reason for Ukraine to hurry in launching its counteroffensive because there is no longer a need to be concerned about Russia’s advance. There is no Russian advance. There’s just a daily process in which Russia looks less capable of continuing this war.

Sometime in the next week, Russia might actually capture Bakhmut. Despite everything that has happened in and around the city, the remaining area of the city proper now controlled by Ukrainian forces is very small.

Bakhmut. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

According to Russian sources, forces involving Wagner Group mercenaries reached the area of the children’s hospital on Thursday. Most Ukrainian forces seem to have retreated across the Khromove road to the area that has been called “the citadel.”

Right now, Russia is pouring artillery into that small area from three directions, trying to reduce the final collection of tall buildings in Bakhmut into powder. The relative shortage of artillery shells, which Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has complained about so many times, doesn’t matter nearly as much when just about every Russian gun in the area is firing into the same small target area.

Given another few days to carry out this process, it’s entirely possible that Prigozhin will get his opportunity to stand on the last of that rubble, wave a Wagner Group flag, and declare Bakhmut captured.

And it won’t mean f**k all.

As kos has written, this is entirely symbolic. Prigozhin has no interest in staying and trying to hold Bakhmut. He’s certainly not going to advance out of Bakhmut. One last wave of that flag—not a Russian flag, not a Russian military flag, but a flag of the private military company that he personally owns—and he is out of there.

For months, just about everyone (including Prigozhin) has noted that Bakhmut has little strategic significance. Over the full year since Russian forces drew close enough to begin shelling the town, it’s been lent a kind of importance based on the fact that Russia needed to move past Bakhmut to reach it’s genuine goals, and Ukraine wanted to hold Russia at Bakhmut as long as possible to both protect its other cities and bleed the Russian military and Wagner Group dry.

Look at that map again. Those locations in the east—the winery, the drywall factory—those are locations Russia was fighting to take nine months ago. It wasn’t until they managed to take Soledar near the end of 2022 that Wagner began to make real inroads into Bakhmut. Even then, their progress across the city has been so slow, each of those landmarks might as well be a calendar page. In the process, Wagner has lost at least 30,000 men.

Bakhmut has held through all the stages of Russia’s mobilization and through the winter offensive. It has been the hot center of all the fighting in Ukraine for so many awful months. If what’s left of the ruined city gets a chance to rest, that’s a good thing. Russia isn't about to go anywhere from Bakhmut, even using artillery to destroy bridges heading west out of the city—stopping any of its own potential advances. Even previous thoughts of repositioning Ukrainian forces along higher ground west and north of the city appear to be irrelevant. Because it seems much more likely that the only forces who will be backpedaling in the area will be Russian.

While fighting in Bakhmut, Russia hasn’t just lost tens of thousands of troops, hundreds of armored vehicles, and dozens of aircraft. It’s lost something more important. It has shredded what remained of the fragile cohesion that held the whole operation in Ukraine together.

As kos has noted, there’s no reason for Ukraine to hurry in launching its counteroffensive. That’s because there is no longer a need to be concerned about Russia’s advance. There is no Russian advance. Instead, there’s just a daily process in which Russia’s uneasy coalition of authoritarian oligarchs looks a little less stable and a lot less capable of continuing this war.

For weeks, we’ve been staring in a mixture of amazement, amusement, and horror as Prigozhin rants against the Russian military while showing off hundreds of fighters lost in minimal advances.

What should really scare Vladimir Putin is that Prigozhin, after weeks of stunts like this, is still there, still in command of Wagner, and still making demands. Not only that, Russian TV hosts are not condemning Prigozhin. The balance of power between Putin and his former caterer seems more than a little questionable.

Earlier today, Prigozhin was back on the air, once again attacking Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov, and blaming the Russian military for retreats around Bakhmut.

But notice what Prigozhin is asking for here. He’s not calling on Russian forces to advance. He’s asking them to hang on to locations around Bakhmut “for a few more days” so that he can complete his bloody ceremonial task inside the city. He’s not talking about winning; he’s talking about the speed with which they will lose.

If there has ever been a major military more disheartened, more splintered, more convinced that it is about to be crushed, that military’s leader was already in a bunker.

As Anna Nemtsova writes for The Washington Post, the Kremlin has “never been so rattled.”

Never, in more than two decades of covering Vladimir Putin’s regime, have I seen it in such an obvious state of chaos and disarray. These days, Kremlin-watchers don’t have to read tea leaves or decode cryptic utterances from the leadership to spot the signs of intrigue—it’s all out in the open, thanks to Putin confidant Yevgeniy Prigozhin.

While Russia’s infighting is certainly doing its share in creating this chaos, Nemtsova also delivers a hat tip to the Ukrainian military for using drone strikes within Russia and carefully calibrated actions to do “everything they can to undermine morale and exacerbate divisions among their enemies.”

That includes “loudly and persistently” discussing the plan for a spring offensive. For Russia, it’s almost as if each press release out of Kyiv is delivered by a tank brigade. Russian forces appear to be standing at the front already halfway turned toward the border, ready to run at the first sign of an actual attack.

The disparity in attitude even appears to be present in the trenches around Bakhmut where smiling Ukrainian forces are taking dejected Russian stragglers prisoner as they overrun position after position. None of this is making all those trenches Russia has been digging all over Ukraine seem like much of an obstacle.

Right now, those final few blocks of Bakhmut are nearly encircled by Russian artillery. With Russian forces able to direct shells into the area from three directions, and Wagner forces able to press forward from both north and east, the effort to sustain a Ukrainian presence within the city may be nearing an end.

But it is still a “may be.” Much will depend on how quickly Ukraine keeps rolling up the flanks to Bakhmut’s north and south, and whether Russia or Wagner still have the forces to fight through that maze of high rises. Even rubble can be effectively defended. And even if they do,  Russia is only able to apply this pressure in this one location because of circumstances they built up over a year at nearly unfathomable cost. They cannot mimic this action at any other point on the whole 1000 km front.

The Battle of Bakhmut is going to be remembered for generations. And whether Prigozhin gets to wave his flag or not, Bakhmut will be remembered as the city where Vladimir Putin’s dream of a new Russian empire was ended.

One last thing … that location that Prigozhin was begging Russian forces to hold for just a few more days? They didn’t.


Last month, we learned that Ukraine had nine mechanized brigades reportedly trained and ready to go when it was time to begin the counteroffensive. However, many articles published in the same week suggested that Ukraine was preparing ten, or even twelve, brigades for the counter offensive.

It looks like one of those additional brigades wasn’t really lost … it was just that they were in Sweden.

The Times of London is reporting that an entire brigade—as in 3,000 to 5,000 troops and all their gear—has been training together in Sweden and are only now being deployed back to Ukraine. Rather than collecting a mishmash of hardware from various countries, this brigade has reportedly been loaded up with: Swedish modified Leopard 2 tanks, Swedish CV-90 combat vehicles, and Swedish Archer artillery. Ja. Ja. Ja.

The idea of moving this many men and women out of Ukraine to train as a coherent unit is absolutely extraordinary, and if true getting them back into the mix could be a key reason Ukraine has been biding their time on launching the counteroffensive. But, regardless of the name linked to the article, this remains something of an extraordinary claim that has not been confirmed by Ukrainian military sources.


From December to March, Russia launched a series of attempts to break through Ukrainian defenses at Avdiivka. Other than Bakhmut, there may be no other area that has received as much Russian military effort in the last six months. Most of that ended back in March when a series of failed assaults left the area east and north of the city littered with burning Russian armor.

Avdiivka. Open image in another tab for a larger view.

But in the last week, what started with another Russian assault seems to have generated a Ukrainian advance that erased essentially all the Russian gains around the city. Ukraine is now back at the edge of Kruta Balka, pressing against the boundaries that have existed since 2014.

It’s unclear if this was a limited advance or if Ukraine will try to exploit new positions after displacing Russian forces. The front line in this area is now only about 4 km from the regional capital city of Donetsk (population: 900,000+).

What seems to be making this possible are reports that Russia has deployed units that were at Avdiivka to join the forces trying to hold the flanks at Bakhmut. Russia is now playing Whac-a-mole, and it’s running short of hammers.

Honestly, Ukraine hasn’t even started the counteroffensive, and already it’s hard to keep up with all the moves.

Still more gear on the way from Norway, including both artillery and counter-artillery systems.


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