A Blog by Jonathan Low


Aug 17, 2023

How Cluster Munitions Are Helping Ukraine Win In Robotyne Salient

Ukraine's methodical demolition of Russian defenses in five axes - Urozhaine (Zaporizhzhia, Robotyne (Tokmak), Bakhmut, Trans-Dnipro and Kreminna (northeast) - is an impressive display of strategic warfare. JL 

Kos reports in Daily Kos:

Russians cling to the last southern corner of Robotyne while Ukrainian forces advance. This puts Ukraine well south of the first defensive line in this area. "The ratio of "cluster war" is 1:7, not in our favor. [7 Ukrainian cluster shells to 1Russian]. Taking into account (they are)  taking out our guns, the ratio will grow worse for us over time. The enemy does not just attack - he initially cuts off  supply routes and the retreat of our units with such shelling. Without satellites, aerial reconnaissance, operational reserves and evacuation plans, we cannot effectively respond." Robotyne is important as it would put Tokmak, one of Russia’s most important logistical hubs on the entire front, within range of tube artillery.

Last month, the United States approved the delivery of cluster munitions to Ukraine. The decision was controversial, as the munitions are banned by treaty in over 100 countries. But it was a smart move: At a time of severe ammunition shortage, the U.S. had over 3 million rounds of cluster munitions waiting to be destroyed. It was better to put them to use, providing Ukraine with a brand new capability previously out of their reach.

A Russian Telegram account, from an officer supposedly at the front, shows just how effective those cluster bombs have been.

The Telegram account of “Colonel Shuvalov” (an obvious nom de guerre) has been a fierce critic of Russian military disinformation, recently bemoaning local commanders for sending false information to Moscow for fear of being held accountable for their losses. He’s also been apoplectic about the effectiveness of Ukraine cluster munitions.

Note: There’s no confirmation that he’s indeed a Russian colonel, or even a Russian, so apply the requisite grain of salt. Also note that I’ve run the Russian-language posts through Telegram’s translate feature, then adjusted the translation for readability. I don’t think I introduced any translation errors, but … you are forewarned.

Anyway, let’s go to the posts. The first one is from July 25:

About cluster munitions

The situation with cluster munitions is extremely difficult. Undoubtedly, we have the largest stocks of such ammunition. But all the good news ends there.

First, any ammunition needs a gun. And our counter-battery situation is a little worse than catastrophic, and trending worse. To this day, there is no systemic solution, while the generals and officers who raised this issue were exiled to the very edge of the borders or to Syria.

“Counter-battery” refers to the destruction of enemy artillery. Ukraine has clear advantages in the radars that triangulate the location of artillery batteries, drones to hunt them, and longer-range artillery to hit them. Apparently, any Russian officer who brings up the seriousness of the situation gets exiled.

Secondly, the parity of losses from the use of cluster munitions by both sides. I do not want to please the enemy by providing accurate data from different sectors of the front, but so far the ratio of "cluster war" is in the range between 1:4 to 1:7, and this is not in our favor. [That is, seven Ukrainian cluster shells to a single Russian one]. Taking into account the fact that the technique is taking out our guns, the ratio will grow in an even worse direction for us over time.

Thirdly, it is necessary to separately consider the strategy for the integrated use of these munitions. The enemy does not just attack - he initially cuts off both the supply routes and the retreat of our units with such shelling. Without a comprehensive solution (satellite reconnaissance, aerial reconnaissance on the ground, the availability of operational reserves and evacuation mechanisms), we cannot effectively respond.

Fourth, there is nothing wrong with admitting that there is a problem and starting to solve it. If only because until the problem is recognized, its solution cannot be decomposed into an administrative-command structure of decisions.

Fifth, it is foolish to hope that, although excellent for their time morally and technically, our outdated ammunition can compete with modern foreign developments. The enemy has significant dominance in both ammunition and guns. No one talks about panic, but in such conditions we are about to run into a qualitative shift in the parity of forces. Are we ready to pay for one destroyed enemy with 25-30 of our guys? The answer is obvious, right? Well, then why are we doing everything that will get us there? Or rather, why are we not doing anything to prevent such a situation?

Sixth, if we continue to hush up the problem, then the enemy will promote it. As a result, in addition to problematic losses, we will have a powerful demoralizing factor at the front. And then you can arrest 10 or 100 generals and even shoot all the colonels— the situation will not get any better.

Guys, the problem needs to be solved. So far, we have a local catastrophe with parity in the use of cluster munitions. We will not react - the catastrophe will not go away, but will become global

While the author is fixated on the ratio of cluster munitions between the two sides, his problem is really Russia’s lack of effective counter-battery operations and the resulting artillery disparity between the two sides. Cluster munitions exacerbate the problem two ways: They have given Ukraine a new steady supply of ammunition sorely lacking as recently as last month, and cluster bombs are a great way to take out artillery without needing to use expensive laser-guided shells or GMLRS rockets (costing over $100,000 each) or hope for a lucky shot from conventional artillery.

Colonel Shuvalov followed up with another update today:

And again about cluster munitions, it’s hard for me to understand why we need to manipulate statistics if in response to our bluster, we suffer colossal real difficulties.

I already wrote about cluster munitions - https://t.me/shouvalov/20. Basically nothing has changed, but a lot needs to be added. The authorities were fully informed that everything was not as it seemed in the initial reports. It is impossible not to take into account the effects of modern Western cluster munitions—they shamelessly mow down both fighters at the front (not only at the front) and civilian infrastructure in the rear.

Note: I was going to mock the claim of “modern” Western cluster munitions, but it turns out the U.S. didn’t stop manufacturing those shells until 2008. So relative to the Soviet junk Russia has, that is quite modern.

Civil infrastructure is a separate item. Cluster shells recently flew over Tokmok and devastated trucks and drivers. The Defense Ministry decided not to publicize this because there was a risk of reciprocal publication of data from the enemy with arguments that the civilian targets were not quite simple and not very civilian. But there were military correspondents with sources in the camp who unleashed anger on the vile NATO members to their readers with attached videos as proof—something the enemy might not have had. And now the enemy can quite boldly show that their goals were legal from a military point of view. And all by our hands…

So, a couple of things here. First of all, the translation is a bit rough, but I’m pretty sure he means that by releasing video of the attack’s aftermath, those Russian sources showed that the target was legitimately military, preventing Russia from pretending the target was civilian.

Furthermore, there’s zero chance Ukraine hit Tokmak with cluster munitions. They are simply not in range. Any such strikes would’ve needed GMLRS rocket artillery or Storm Shadow cruise missiles. I don’t doubt the guy believes it; it’s such a stupid thing to lie about, and it’s what gives this account an air of authenticity to me. The fog of war is thick for those in the midst of that fog, and I could see how cluster bombs could be suddenly blamed for all of Russia’s ills, just like GMLRS rocket artillery was once credited for every single Ukrainian attack against Russia, even when it clearly wasn’t involved.

We [the Russian government] should have focused all our efforts into blocking the supply of cluster munitions to Ukraine: to declare that we would not use such munitions, to tear apart the Europeans who have banned cluster munitions. There was a chance. But they [the Americans] assumed we were weak and we happily fell for it and declared that we had plenty of these munitions ourselves.

Yes, we have many. You can search for photos. Basically, an illiquid asset killed by time, the rest—morally and technically obsolete. And with the guns, everything is not very good.

Very smart thought, and again, it gives this account an air of authenticity. When the U.S. announced it would deliver cluster munitions to Ukraine, it tore the NATO alliance apart, eliciting fierce denouncements from several European capitals and restlessness among key Democrats. Russia could’ve smartly played them all off against each other. Imagine key well-meaning progressive Democrats joining with pro-Putin MAGA Republicans to defund the transfer of cluster munitions to Ukraine. Imagine Biden facing a revolt among our European allies if he carried through on the promise to deliver those shells.

Instead, Russia loudly declared that they had more cluster bombs than Ukraine and would “start” using them (despite the myriad videos showing that Russia had used cluster munitions from the first day of the war). It turned the story from “Ukraine uses banned munitions” to “both sides do it.” At that point, Ukraine was home free, and all resistance to the American deliveries dissipated.

If the author is right and Russia’s own supply of cluster munitions are old, nonfunctional, and obsolete, well, that just adds an extra dose of irony to the situation.  

Now you can’t undo the situation. And when you are proven weak, it’s stupid to scare you with the fact that “I’m not weak twice already”—it’s stupid [I can’t make that more readable, it must be some Russian proverb]. The [Russian] General Staff already understands this, but they cannot fix it, there is no solution. The guys on the front line are taking a beating, and it's not easy at all. Those wounded by cluster munitions often die, and this is a very painful and terrible death. The enemy has learned (yes, imagine, they are also learning!) to cut off the path of reinforcements or the withdrawal of forces with artillery, and trenches do not protect from cluster munitions. You can’t save yourself with a tourniquet, after being hit by cluster bombs you need solid medical care, if you even survived. In the trenches, a terrible mess is left with the living and the dying, who are sometimes completely impossible to help.

In such cases, the enemy methodically waits for our forces rushing to help their comrades. I saw all this in Chechnya, when a sniper left a wounded man to pull other guys to him. But there was actually a single work, but with cluster bombs—it is similar, but scaled up tens and hundreds of times. We need a counter-battery fight, but it is not there. You need a lot of things, but first of all—you need to finally admit the problem and start solving it, and not throw around the words that "we will hit you now, yes, we will hit you kaaaaak."

It’s not some colonel from a hospital bed shouting about the problem dealing with cluster munitions. It’s the voices of hundreds of guys dying in terrible agony in the trenches and the widows of hundreds killed by them in just these couple of weeks that are shouting about these problems. And I specifically do not specify whether there are really hundreds, or already thousands—we will not please the enemy with statistics. [It’s clearly thousands, sheesh, he’s not really trying to hide it well.]

The army needs a solution. The cluster munition situation is terrible, and worst of all, we try to hide the problem when we need a solution. And this is already beyond the capabilities of individual generals and commanders to fix.

The frustration is palpable, but there honestly is no solution. He’s clearly saying that Moscow needs to solve the situation, but where is Russia going to get longer-range artillery? Their best option is to manufacture more kamikaze drones, but Ukraine is reportedly getting better at the electronic warfare capabilities needed to counter them. And in any case, Russia still has to find the guns, and they clearly lack the reconnaissance abilities (counter-battery radar, satellite, aircraft, drone) to find Ukrainian guns and destroy them before they have a chance to scatter.

And as for supplies, the U.S. will no longer use cluster bombs, so unlike other weapons in short supply, there’s no reason not to clear out its entire stock of three million shells. Ukraine won’t lack artillery munitions for the rest of this war. By the time they’ve burned through these cluster shells, regular shell production in the U.S., Europe, and elsewhere (Pakistan, maybe South Korea) will be able to meet demand. And until then, 3 million cluster bombs will kill a lot of Russians, and clear a lot of positions.

Robotyne keeps looking better and better.

Robotyne is important as it would put Tokmak, one of Russia’s most important logistical hubs on the entire front, within range of tube artillery. At that point, Ukraine could hit Russian targets in the city using cluster munitions.

Some reports have Russians clinging to the last southern corner of the town while Ukrainian forces advance on the eastern flank.

This all points puts Ukraine well south of that first defensive line in this area:

The red dots are Russian defensive emplacements

The pace of advance has certainly picked up in the past week. It points to a collapsing Russian defense. Now we wait to see if Russia rallies with reserves, or if Ukraine will continue to gain steadily.

Meanwhile, Russian sources are now admitting their advance toward Kupyansk in the Kharkiv/Luhansk border is slowing because of a “troop rotation.” What we know for sure is that Ukrainian claims that Russia had amassed 100,000 troops and hundreds of tanks in that axis of advance were bullshit. I said it at the time, and it’s borne out. There was no way Russia was committing that kind of force up there.

Ukraine never took the bait, happy to cede some territory as the defense continues to be manned by lesser-equipped and trained Territorial Defense Forces. They certainly haven’t felt the need to rush reserves up there, which is the entire reason Russia is pushing here.


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