A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 3, 2023

The Reason Ukraine Keeps Attacking Around Bakhmut

Russian forces at Bakhmut are less well organized or fortified than in other sectors of the front. The Ukrainian high command sees the potential for a breakthrough there that could potentially destabilize the rest of the Russian defensive line. JL 

RO37 reports in Daily Kos:

Ukraine is increasing its combat power in areas where it can engage Russian troops not behind fortified lines. As a NATO-trained/-equipped heavy armored brigade, the 21st “Swedish” Mechanized is the highest-profile unit deployed to the eastern front since the start of the counteroffensive. Securing Bakhmut opens a route to advance to the flank; Ukraine could then secure the strategically important rail junction and major city of Donetsk. Bakhmut, where large numbers of Russian troops sit upon freshly captured (and therefore not heavily mined or fortified) territory represents an ideal place for Ukraine to draw out Russian reserves, and destroy them.

Ukrainian CV90 Infantry Fighting Vehicles have been spotted deploying to the Bakhmut area, sporting unit patches of the 21st Mechanized Brigade. These Swedish-made IFVs are considered some of the most powerful ones in Ukraine’s arsenal, on a similar tier as American Bradley and German Marder IFVs.

In the past week, Ukraine’s 22nd Mechanized, 30th Mechanized, and 57th Motorized Brigades have also been deployed north of Bakhmut. This follows a trend: Ukraine may be increasing its combat power in areas where it can engage Russian troops not currently behind fortified lines.

Meanwhile, there are ongoing discussions of two new long-ranged missile systems that may be provided to Ukraine as soon as this month—systems that may have significant impacts on the battlefield.


In mid-May, there was a surprise announcement that an entire Ukrainian brigade had secretly been being trained by the Swedish Army, and was nearly ready to deploy. The brigade was to have been equipped with some of the best weaponry that Ukraine has in its possession:

  • Stridsvagn 122: The Strv 122 is a Swedish upgrade to the Leopard 2 tank considered a rough analog to the Leopard 2A5. Alongside the Challenger 2 and Leopard 2A6, the Strv 122 is considered one of Ukraine’s most powerful Western tanks, designed for enhanced mobility in snow or mud.
  • CV90 IFV: a highly mine-resistant, thermal-camouflaged, and heavily armored IFV capable of carrying eight troopers. While it lacks an integrated anti-tank missile system, like the Marder or Bradley IFVs, the CV90 has a 40mm auto-cannon that can quickly destroy any armored vehicle in the Russian army—short of a Main Battle Tank. The auto-cannon is devastating against enemy infantry, both in buildings or the open. The CV90 is also designed for enhanced mobility in snow or mud.
  • FH77BW L52 Archer Artillery System: This self-propelled long-ranged howitzer fires NATO standard 155mm artillery shells. It features a novel 21-shell, fully automatic, auto-loading system that gives it a rate of fire much faster than most of its contemporaries, making it ideal for modern shoot-and-scoot (to move and quickly relocate) tactics.

The brigade was reported filled out with other NATO standard weaponry and vehicles, and trained in NATO-style tactics. It can be fairly described as one of the most powerful brigades in the Ukrainian military.

As noted above, Ukrainian CV90s were spotted wearing 21st Mechanized Brigade patches traveling northwest of Bakhmut, indicating that the Swedish-trained brigade’s identity is the 21st Mechanized.

The significance of the 21st Mechanized patch is that we finally have definitive evidence of the Swedish-trained brigade’s identity. It also confirms it was one of the nine NATO-trained and equipped heavy armored brigades identified in the leaked Pentagon papers. The names of eight such brigades were identified in the leaked papers: 7th, 21st, 32nd, 33rd, 37th, 82nd, 117th, and 118th Brigades, with a ninth name being illegible.

As a NATO-trained/-equipped heavy armored brigade, the 21st “Swedish” Mechanized is the highest-profile unit deployed to the eastern front since the start of the summer counteroffensive.

Russians have mirrored these movements by recently committing to Bakhmut Private Military Company veterans, Patriot, Potok, and Fakel, as well as the 11th and 31st Guards Air Assault Brigades. Both sides appear to be increasing their force commitments.

In the broadest terms, Bakhmut is dominated by four different areas of high ground. I call these the Northern, Southern, Eastern and Western Heights, but to be clear, these are not what locals or any formal cartographer calls them, but my personal easy shorthand to understand the battle.  

Ukraine controls of the Western Heights, around the village of Khromove. Russia controls the Northern (Berkhivka) Heights, Southern (Klishchiivka) Heights, and Eastern (Vesela Dolyna) Heights.

Ukraine has been driving for the town of Klishchiivka, around which are the Southern Heights.

The below unit identities and positions are aggregated from Ukraine Control Map, Poulet Volent, and Andrew Perpetua.

In the past week, Ukrainian forces have succeeded in forcing Russian units west of the canal to retreat east, and begun gaining positions on the east side.

Ukrainian troops are pressing close to Kurdyumivka (to the south of the map above), and the key Southern Heights town of Klishchivka. The main objective, for now, is likely Klishchivka, but capturing Kurdyumivka will likely expose Klishchivka’s southern flank—representing major progress towards capturing the Southern Heights.

The three key units driving the offensive action in this area are the 3rd Assault, the 80th Air Assault, and the 28th Mechanized Brigade. All three units have been engaged in the Bakhmut sector since at least February; the Third Assault Brigade arrived in this sector last fall. None of these units were tabbed for the counteroffensive—they have been deployed in this area for months.

However, Ukraine has strengthened these attacks by deploying three Territorial Defense Brigades in the 104th, 112th, and 118th TDBs. Territorial Defense units are lesser-trained units than the regular army, generally receiving only four months of training, as opposed to the six-month minimum for regular army troops.

Many TDF units have a high proportion of conscripts, whereas the regular army gets the highest motivated volunteers. Some TDF units even received conscripts sent to the front with only days of training, particularly when Ukraine was trying to hoard its trained units for the offensive in the late spring.

However, on average, Ukraine’s TDF units tend to have higher training standards than their conscripted Russian counterparts, and have performed quite well in many theaters. They do tend to represent a lower standard of training and generally are lower in priority for advanced weaponry.

Ukraine choosing to reinforce the southern attacks with TDF troops perhaps reflects an eagerness by the Ukrainian general staff to preserve the premier combat power of Ukraine’s reserves for other sectors, while still reinforcing the attack

This approach contrasts very sharply with the numerous regular army units seen taking positions in Northern Bakhmut over the past several days. They include:

  • 21st Mechanized (“Swedish”): NATO trained & equipped elite brigade;
  • 22nd Mechanized: newly formed brigade with advanced Polish-made PT-91 tanks;
  • 30th Mechanized : A veteran unit that fought in the War in Donbas since 2014, fought in the Battle of Bakhmut since the summer of 2022 on regular rotation; the 30th rotated out of Bakhmut sometime during the late spring, and rotated back into position in the past few days.

The 57th Motor Rifle Brigade has been leading the attack, pressing into parts of the key town of Bekhivka, on the eastern edge of what I call the Northern Heights. The 30th Mechanized Brigade has been attacking the salient from the north. The goal appears to be to pincer this salient and, if possible, converge on the area around Krasna Hora to eject the Russians out of the Northern flank of Bakhmut.

While the 21st and 22nd MB have not been deployed—from what I can gather—whenever they are released into battle they should represent a powerful additional armored punch.

Russia has deployed additional new troops in Bakhmut as well, including several Private Military Companies. These semi-independent groups are much like Wagner, but the mercenaries of these companies are made to sign contracts directly with the Ministry of Defense. This makes them much closer tied to the MoD than with Wagner. The quality and quantity of these PMCs are as yet unknown.

The 11th and 31st Guards Air Assault Brigades were also spotted, which would represent the commitment by Russia of some of the few remaining reserve elite paratrooper units.


Regular readers of Daily Kos’ Ukraine Updates, are likely familiar with an oft-repeated truth about the Battle of Bakhmut: The city carries with it a very minimal strategic significance. For Russia, it is important only as a next step to further advances to important strategic locations like Sloviansk, 60km to the northwest.

To Ukraine, securing Bakhmut might open a route to advance to Horlivka, which would then potentially open up a route to the flank; Ukraine could then secure the strategically important rail junction and major city of Donetsk.

Liberating Donetsk would certainly be a huge strategic victory, but merely a victory at Bakhmut would still leave Ukraine numerous steps away from a strategic victory. It would require an additional 60km of intensely fought advances from Bakhmut to achieve—no less distant than any value Russia could derive from capturing Bakhmut.

So one question might be, why would Ukraine throw precious mechanized brigades at Bakhmut, much less one of Ukraine’s most powerful units (the 21st Mechanized)?

Part of the answer lies in the nature of the CV90s that make up the backbone of the 21st MB. David Axe at Forbes points out that the Bradley and Marder IFVs anti-tank missile systems are ideal for long-ranged combat in flat obstacle-less plains. The flat plains and farmland of southern Ukraine are ideal for that type of combat.

By contrast, the CV90’s 40mm auto-cannon is ideal for quick-reacting in close-quarters combat with lots of obstacles. The rapid-firing auto-cannon can fire anti-tank sabot rounds that cut through trees like a chainsaw, simply blasting through any obstacles. It would be similarly devastating in urban environments.

Quite simply, the CV90 is designed to fight in terrain much like Eastern Ukraine.

A second factor here is likely the difficulties Ukraine faces with minefields, which makes keeping too large a reserve in the south a waste of resources in the short- to mid-term.

Tatarigami_UA, a Ukrainian field officer who posts regularly on Twitter, recently dropped a thread explaining how modern technology has made minefields considerably more troublesome than in the past.

The thread is certainly worth reading in full, but to paraphrase it: In heavily mined areas, Russian troops enjoy surveillance that would have been only dreamed of as recently as 15-20 years ago. Because Russian surveillance drones give Russian defenders nearly full surveillance over vast areas, they can respond to Ukrainian incursions into remote areas that would have gone undetected for some time in the past.

Tatarigami_UA says there are no easy solutions.

  • Shelling or explosives can clear areas of mines, but to make effective advances, Ukraine needs to clear broad areas that can amount to square kilometers of territory—and the amount of ammunition needed to clear such broad areas are impractical;
  • De-mining equipment is important, but those specialists need to be protected as they work—they are vulnerable to helicopter attacks, anti-tank guided missiles, and loitering munitions (suicide drones);
  • Explosive line charges, such as the MLCL, are effective, but they only provide a starting point. Because they clear only a small area about 100m deep, when Russian minefields extend for kilometers, it can be a very slow and repetitive process to advance.

Tatarigami suggests that a combined arms approach—protecting de-mining equipment while making frequent use of line charges and different engineering vehicles—is the only way to succeed. And this takes time to do right, thus patience is of the essence. This may explain why Ukraine is interested in striking Russians wherever they are not behind fortifications—like in Bakhmut.

Ideally, Ukraine slowly but steadily grinds its way past Russian defenses until it can break through and overwhelm any Russian reserves.

But to do so, Ukraine would ideally grind down any Russian reserve troops beforehand, to make the exploitation of a breakthrough that much easier and faster.

Areas like Bakhmut, where large numbers of Russian troops currently sit upon freshly captured (and therefore not heavily mined or fortified) territory represents an ideal place for Ukraine to draw out Russian reserves, and destroy them. Otherwise, these troops will be being rotated into the fortified lines around Tokmak and Velyka Novosilka—which would be worse.


Ukraine’s Western allies admit that Ukraine’s progress has been slower than ideal, but they hope to accelerate the process by providing additional weaponry to enhance Ukraine’s firepower.

The U.S. is reportedly (finally) seriously considering giving Ukraine ATACMS missiles.  A bipartisan group of senators, including Idaho Republican  James Risch, have been pushing the Biden administration to deliver ATACMS for Ukraine and report that a decision is close.

With up to a 300km range, the ATACMS is roughly analogous in range and capabilities to the Storm Shadow cruise missile that Ukraine has already received. It is a ballistic missile rather than a cruise missile, however, meaning it takes a ballistic trajectory to reach its target,

While the Storm Shadow relies on stealth, by flying extremely low and hugging the ground at around Mach 0.8 to hit its targets, the ATACMS goes the opposite route. It flies up to 160,000 feet into the air (50km) before hurling down towards its target at Mach 3-4.  It uses sheer speed to prevent interception and strikes its targets with tremendous kinetic energy.

ATACMS come in three varieties. Block 1 and Block 1A (unitary) and Block 1A (submunition). Ukraine is most likely to get the unitary warhead Block 1A version, due to the controversy surrounding submunition varieties.  Submunition missiles are also commonly known as cluster munitions. However, the cluster munition versions of the ATACMS may be being seriously considered as well, because the Biden administration is also strongly considering sending DPICM cluster munitions to Ukraine.

The controversy over cluster munitions is owing in part to its international legal status. For nations that have voluntarily signed up for the Convention on Cluster Munitions, they are illegal to use, and over 100 nations have signed on to the convention. Russia, the United States, and Ukraine are not signatories, thus their use of cluster munitions is not restricted under international law. In fact, Russia has frequently deployed cluster munitions throughout the Russo-Ukrainian War, with unexploded cluster munitions recovered by Ukrainian forces even in urban areas.  But the weapons remain highly controversial. I will explore this in greater detail in Sunday’s Update.

The Block 1 missile is the “standard” ATACMS missile, and is a type of cluster munition. A heavy 560kg warhead carries nearly a thousand 0.59kg bomblets. The bomblets are 6cm in diameter (2.4”) and filled with explosive, incendiary pellets and a steel/tungsten fragmentation casing. The height at which the bomblets are deployed can be adjusted to give the missile a variable effect. A low-altitude deployment creates a concentrated deployment of bomblets, inflicting exceptionally heavy damage in a tight radius, whereas a higher-altitude deployment can cause lighter distribution of destruction to a broader area.

The Block 1 ATACMS has a range of 160km, a significantly shorter range than cruise missiles like the Storm Shadow missile, but it has several advantages.

First, cluster munitions are far more effective when trying to destroy broadly distributed unarmored targets. The tungsten fragmentation bomblets are somewhat analogous to the M30A1 tungsten fragmentation GMLRS warhead for the HIMARS system, but the size of the warhead is on a different level.  

The M30A1 warhead is just 91kg, whereas the Block 1 ATACMS warhead is nearly six times bigger at 560kg, and the cluster munition format permits it to blanket an area with fragmentation more efficiently. The ballistic trajectory of the ATACMS also makes it easier to strike straight down with the fragmentation on a broad area—meaning it can fire straight down into even deep trenches.

It is, arguably, the perfect weapon to clear broad areas of heavily entrenched infantry in trench positions.

Deployed in a tight radius, the Block 1 ATACMS is also highly effective at destroying buildings and can be used as an anti-vehicle weapon. Although GPS-guided weapons are generally unsuitable for striking moving targets, the broader area of effect and the Mach 3.5 speed-reducing time-to-target of the ATACMS cluster munition makes it so the ATACMS is capable of hitting even moving targets.

The Block 1A missile is also a submunition (cluster) missile, and is substantially similar to the Block 1 missile in design and effect, except it has a substantially smaller warhead (300 submunitions, about one-third the size of a Block 1) which allowed the range to be extended to 300km.

Block 1A-Unitary is the final variant of the ATACMS that Ukraine is most likely to receive. It is not a cluster munition and is broadly similar to the capabilities and effects of say, the Storm Shadow cruise missile. Also has a 300km range, the Block 1A-Unitary ATACMS replaces the cluster munition warhead with one of two warheads. The 213kg antipersonnel/light vehicle warhead is identical to that equipped on AGM/RGM-84 harpoons, or the 247kg penetrative warhead also used on SLAM-ER missiles. The antipersonnel fragmentation missile is still designed to have a concentrated effect, aimed to reduce collateral damage—while not permitting the types of broad-area destruction the Block 1 or Block1A cluster munition missiles can offer.

All ATACMS missiles are fired from either the M270 MLRS launchers or the HIMARS MLRS launcher. They are the U.S. Army’s standard tactical missile. There are plans to replace the ATACMS with the new Precision Strike Missile sometime during 2023, but the PrSM has undergone several delays, As a result, the U.S. Army has been reluctant to part with its stockpile of ATACMS missiles, fearing that providing substantial numbers of ATACMS to Ukraine would negatively impact U.S. military readiness.

If the Biden administration has changed its stance on ATACMS for Ukraine, it may be a result of an update on the readiness of the PrSM for deployment to the U.S, Army, ameliorating military readiness concerns.

Even if Ukraine only receives the Block 1A-unitary ATACMS, it would provide a substantial boost to Ukrainian long-range strike capabilities by simply increasing the stock of available missiles.

However, the largest impact might be felt if the U.S. chooses to also send Block 1/1A ATACMS with cluster munition warheads. ATACMS cluster munitions are essentially perfectly designed to take out infantry positions in deep entrenchments due to the angle to entry, and their broadly distributed fragmentation damage on thin-skinned targets, like infantry or lightly armored vehicles.

Which is perfect to take on heavily entrenched Russian positions in southern Ukraine.

Ukraine Aiming to Purchase Naval Strike Missiles from Poland

Another long-range missile Ukraine hopes to receive is the Norwegian-made Naval Strike Missiles, developed by Kongsberg Defense & Aerospace.

KDM calls the NSM “the world’s first fifth-generation naval missile,” and it is broadly considered one of the most advanced anti-ship missiles in the world. KDM counts the United States Navy as one of its biggest export customers; the NSM is also used by Germany, Japan, Canada, Australia, and a number of other Western nations.

While ATACMS relies on speed to evade enemy interception, the NSM is one of the stealthiest missiles in the world. Although it cruises at low altitudes at a relatively slower Mach 0.8, it is made of composite materials that reduce its radar cross-section, and its advanced navigation system allows it to skim the ground at tree-top heights.

It is designed to be electronically near-undetectable, utilizing passive guidance technology and an infrared imaging recognition targeting system that makes the missile resistant to jamming and electronic countermeasures.

The NSM also has a terminal maneuvering system, where the missile makes a series of randomized maneuvers to evade enemy defense systems’ interception attempts. The high thrust-to-weight ratio of the NSM makes the missile highly maneuverable, making interception extremely difficult.

The NSM is capable of engaging littoral (brown/shallow water) targets or open-sea (blue/deep water) targets. The NSM is also designed to strike land targets, making it a highly versatile surface-to-surface missile.

With a 120kg warhead, it would have a payload roughly half the size of a Storm Shadow cruise missile, but the NSM would provide a naval strike capability that may significantly improve its reach. Ukraine’s domestically designed and produced R-360 Neptune anti-ship missile has a reported range of 280km, but has not been seen since the Moskva’s sinking. It’s believed that Ukraine had a very small stock of such missiles at the opening of the conflict, and key production facilities for manufacturing the missile may have been damaged or lost.

Ukraine has been reliant predominantly on coastal batteries armed with the U.S.-produced RGM-84 Harpoon missile in its truck-launched variant. These missiles only have a range of around 110km (70 miles). The NSM would vastly improve the reach of Ukrainian anti-ship batteries.

Ukraine aims to obtain the missiles by purchasing them from staunch Ukrainian ally Poland. Polish sources quote government insiders that indicate that the negotiations are at a very advanced stage. The Polish army possesses two batteries, composed of three launchers each, and command/support elements. Each launcher can equip up to four NSM missiles at a time.  

Poland has made two purchases of systems: First, a purchase of undisclosed value for the first launcher in 2008, then a purchase valued at $173M announced in 2010, with delivery in 2017. KDM described the second deal as being similar in scope to the 2008 purchase.

The total stock of Polish NSM missiles is unknown, but assuming Poland has purchased two batteries and spent around $300M on NSM systems, we can make an educated guess. Generally, missile launch systems tend to be relatively lower proportions of the total cost of the unit. For example, a HIMARS launcher is just $3.5M, thus the purchase of two batteries of three launchers each is likely in the $20M range. That leaves $280M left to spend on missiles that are valued at $2.1M each. Thus a stock of around 130-140 missiles is a reasonably educated guess.

Assuming that Poland sells to Ukraine no more than half of its stock, Ukraine may be able to buy as many as 60-70 missiles and a battery of three launchers. That would be my guess.

The step of obtaining advanced naval missiles may be driven by two factors: reducing the operational impact of the Black Sea Fleet on southern theater operations, and possibly an eye on i


Post a Comment