A Blog by Jonathan Low


May 20, 2023

Why Ukraine's Latest Bakhmut Success Is Bad New For Russian Defense Plans

The Russian troops defending Bakhmut's environs were some of their best: paratroopers with better weapons and training. Yet they chased away - with heavy casualties - by Ukrainians forces who suffered no casualties. 

The implication is that Russia's extensive defenses in occupied Ukraine may be a latter day Potemkin trench system: impressive to look at, but with little in the way of trained troops and real equipment to back it up. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

The first big takeaway from the current Bakhmut situation: Russian troops manning defenses are poorly equipped and don’t know what they’re doing. If the best-equipped Russian units lack basic anti-tank guided missiles, mortars, and other basic defensive tools, what do untrained mobilized mobiks in the rest of the trench system have? The answer has to be pretty much nothing. Those Russian defenders were “elite” VDV paratroopers! These are literally their best troops. The rest of Russia’s defensive trenches will be manned by worse-quality soldiers. (And) they don’t have a mobile reserve. What if that network of trenches is just another Russian fiction, designed to merely look daunting and terrifying.

Just as Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group PMC (private military contractor) has Bakhmut’s complete control in its grasp, Ukrainian forces have broken through weak resistance on the city’s northern and southern flanks, putting the entire Russian effort at risk. In short, if this dynamic persists, Russian troops inside the city itself could find themselves surrounded by advancing Ukrainian forces.

Image circulating in Russian Telegram, showing their fears of what’s happening

Prigozhin can argue that his is an offensive force, that he hasn’t trained his troops for defensive actions. The fact that he hasn’t trained his troops for any actions (including offensive ones) is besides the point. He’s okay sending men to die on the advance. Someone else can die for Mother Russia in the trenches.

Still, what’s happening on the trenches tells another story, and it’s one that bodes well for Ukraine’s summer counteroffensive.

Southwest of Bakhmut, Ukraine’s Azov battalion, now rebranded as the 3rd Assault Brigade, has been making steady advances against Russian positions.

As I’ve mentioned before, these are small-scale attacks. In this case, it’s one M113 armored personnel carrier with an eight-man squad of infantry. No artillery support, no heavy armor. Apparently, there was supposed to be engineering support, but they never show up in this video despite numerous exasperated radio calls demanding to know where they were. Combined-arms warfare is hard even at this diminutive scale.

I remain skeptical that Ukraine can pull off large-scale combined arms warfare. No one has managed it in this war. This battle shows that if Ukraine pulls it off, Russian defenses don’t have a chance. And if they don’t … Russian defenses still don’t have a chance.

I’ll let an apoplectic Igor Girkin, the war criminal Russian nationalist who has been a fierce critic of the “special military operation” this entire war, explain what that video says about the state of Russia’s defenses:

I'll say that the Russian Armed Forces are mostly good fighters, but what's the point in recruiting 300, 500, or at least 900,000 of them, when, with the almost complete absence of combat control system, coherence of actions, communications, reconnaissance, fire support, training, etc, etc, they will simply be crushed as below in the video.

A platoon is 30-50 men. So either that “platoon strongpoint” was severely undermanned, or it was hit by Ukrainian artillery beforehand and thinned out, or 10 Ukrainians easily annihilated a much larger unit.

The assault itself lasts about 16 minutes, filmed in one shot. During this time, the enemy crosses 305 meters. Where are the hand-held anti-tank weapons? Where are the anti-tank firing points with ATMs [anti-tank missiles]? Where is the minefield with TMs [likely anti-tank mines]? Where is the fire support from the flanks (from perpendicular woodlines) on the left and right? WHY THE FUCK DOES THE BMP RIDE SLOWLY IN OPEN SPACE FOR 15 MINUTES? What did they say in that video by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation? "We're burning enemy vehicles as they approach"?

Why were our servicemen simply crushed, on foot? [He means no armor support.] Probably, the "Wagnerites" are to blame for this again, and not the commanders of the RF Armed Forces on the ground.

I'll just say for myself that I can't imagine that we could go like this along the woodline, hiding behind vehicles, where the enemy is on the defensive. Most likely, we would not even have had time to dismount from the vehicles, we would have been burned on the way. The enemy placed TM mines at all approaches. The BMD [infantry vehicle] could not even go to the line to pick up the wounded, so they were dragged through one more woodline. And when a group of VDV was withdrawn (only 300m) to occupy a site in the "gray zone", they were immediately cut off from the neighboring woodline by enemy fire, preventing us from leaving and gaining a foothold at a previously set point.

Girkin is absolutely right. That Azov video is simply unbelievable. The infantry vehicle slowly chugging along, its small, lightly armed infantry squad clearing trenches without any real response except for a machine gun nest and some rifle fire. It’s ludicrously easy. When they reach the final trench, they even cart off unfired rocket-propelled grenades and other trophy ammunition. And you know the most amazing part of this? The part that truly blows me away?

Those Russian defenders were “elite” VDV paratroopers! These are literally their best troops, trained to jump out of airplanes, now left to ineffectively rot in trenches.

The Azov infantrymen are ecstatic at their new battle trophies, showing off higher-quality rifles not issued to lesser troops. But if the best-equipped Russian units lack basic anti-tank guided missiles, mortars, and other basic defensive tools, what do untrained mobilized mobiks in the rest of the trench system have? The answer has to be pretty much nothing, doesn’t it?

Girlkin is also right that if the situation was reversed, this would’ve gone a lot differently. That infantry vehicle would’ve been blown to bits, and it would’ve happened two kilometers away from where this one dismounted. He’s right that Ukraine would’ve had multiple lanes of fire, trapping attackers in the crossfire. That’s how towns like Irpin, Popasna, Severodonetsk, Avdiivka, Dovhenk’e, Bakhmut and so many others held out as long as they did. Every defensive position is smart and intentional, and the Ukrainian soldiers manning those positions know the plan.

Russia? Russia just throws men into these ditches and leaves them to die. We saw what that looks like for a mobik earlier this week, with the rescued Russian POW video and story.. But you’d expect something more from VDV paratroopers. In reality, they can’t manage basic defensive tasks my son learned in his initial infantry training.

So that’s the first big takeaway from the current Bakhmut situation: Russian troops manning defenses are poorly equipped and don’t know what they’re doing. This VDV defense was pathetic, which means the rest of Russia’s defensive manpower will be even worse. Mind-blowing, truly.

There’s a second equally shocking revelation.

Meet Russia’s 10th Tank Regiment, part of the 3rd Army Corp. The 3rd AC was created during Russia’s big mobilization last year, and was supposed to sweep in and turn the tide of the war. Manned by mobiks, older former soldiers, and obsolete equipment, it did none of that. Instead, it was parceled out across the entire front in dribs and drabs. The 10th Tank Regiment landed near Avdiivka, in the suburbs of the regional capital city of Donetsk.

There, the 10th was treated much like Russian naval infantry marines were treated around Vuhledar—forced to engage in suicidal frontal attacks against well-entrenched and armed Ukrainian defenders.

Some sources have referred to the 10th Tank regiment as “elite,” but I don’t see anything indicating it deserves that designation. It’s shit mobiks who lost all their heavy equipment attempting ill-planned and executed attacks around Avdiivka. That should’ve been the end of their story.

Instead, battered, bloody, and just six weeks after their decisive defeat, their remnants have been transferred to the Bakhmut front, south of the city, to help hold the lines.

Ukraine began shelling and dropping grenades on those poor saps the second they arrived, quickly killing their commander. If there’s a story about an ill-fated unit this war, these guys are in the running. Yet Russia depends on them to plug a gap and hold a significant chunk of real estate directly south of Bakhmut.

Here’s the thing—this is usually the job of what’s called a “mobile reserve.” Those are armored units plus supporting infantry that sit in the rear, ready to plug any holes opened up by an enemy attack. It is a critical part of any defense and has to factor into gaming out an offensive war plan. Yet given what Russia scrounged up to fill this gap, they don’t have a mobile reserve.

Given its severe manpower and equipment losses, there’s little chance the 10th was fully reconstituted in the last six weeks. And if they were, it would be more untrained mobiks with zero time to integrate into their new unit. But there’s no need to worry about much of that if all they’re going to do is toss those ragged remnants into a line of trenches. Russia doesn’t care. It doesn’t actually expect them to survive.

So to recap, Russia’s best troops can’t halt even the most half-assed Ukrainian advance. Its VDV paratroopers buckled against a single squad, easily advancing 350 meters. Remember Prigozhin’s daily math from two weeks ago:

  • On Sunday, he announced that Wagner had advanced 100-150 meters in Bakhmut, and suffered 94 dead.

  • On Monday, he claimed his forces had gained 120 meters at the cost of 86 dead.

  • On Wednesday, it was 160 meters advanced with 103 dead.

  • On Thursday, he claimed 230 meters advanced and 116 of his “best fighters” killed.

In other words, eight Ukrainians plus the two driving and manning the cannon on the armored personnel carrier picked up what had likely cost Wagner around 300 dead. It’s no surprise that in one of his furious rants this week, Prigozhin claimed Ukraine had regained territory that had cost his crew 500 dead.

Meanwhile, the Azov squad suffered zero losses.

The rest of Russia’s defensive trench network will be manned by even worse-quality soldiers. And sure, they claim they’ve heavily mined those defenses, but … where were the mines in that Azov assault? There were anti-infantry snares—you could hear the armored vehicle triggering them, but there were no anti-tank mines for the vehicle to worry about.

Meanwhile, forget any notion of a competent mobile reserve. Apparently, Russia will merely round up whatever stragglers exist from a recently bloodied unit and throw them into the next line of defenses.

Obviously, Ukraine has to plan for a far more competent defense than we’re seeing in these Bakhmut flanks. But … what if that doesn’t exist? What if it’s just another Russian mirage, one of many, stretching back to Russia’s famous Potemkin villages? We’ve seen Russia’s army, air force, and navy all exposed as paper tigers. Their vaunted “combined arms” doctrine failed to show up on the first day of the war. Their propaganda has been hilariously bad.

What if that network of trenches is just another Russian fiction, designed to merely look daunting and terrifying.

We’ll find out soon enough if the hype matches the reality. But given what we’re seeing in Bakhmut today, I’m feeling particularly optimistic about Ukraine’s near-term prospects. I’ve certainly lost all faith in Russia’s ability to do anything right.

So I’ll go out on a long limb (knocking on wood) and predict that at some point, we may be writing updates about Ukraine’s real problem in its offensive—the problem of advancing so fast that they outrun their supply lines.


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